Once the beginning of February arrives, Saint Valentine is everywhere, and shopping centres encourage us to buy compulsively, and although normally I don’t indulge, this year I have decided to join the celebrations. After all, any excuse is good, don’t you think? Especially when you talk about LOVE! Do you want to come with me for a little while?
St. Valentine’s Day has been celebrated in the UK for many centuries. Finding out that it is actually a British tradition has been a total surprise for me. It was from the UK that these customs spread to the rest of the world: first to the Anglosphere in the 19th century and then to many other countries in the later part of the 20th century. This feast originated from the merger of pagan and Christian rites. The legend and mystery surrounding the celebrations of this day, have brought controversy and doubt around St. Valentine’s, as the motives behind the day’s creation and even St. Valentine himself are not very clear.
There was a Roman festival called Lupercalia on February 15th to mark the start of spring. It consisted of fertility and marriage rites concerning all young people of marriageable age.
As Christianity spread accross the Roman Empire, including much of the UK, this festival became a day of remembrance for St. Valentine. Thus, pagan and Christian celebrations merged into one: Lupercalia was put back a day and celebrated on St. Valentine’s Day, February 14th.
Did you know that there were three St. Valentines? I will just tell you about the most famous one, a Christian priest named Valentine from the 3rd century who lived under the rule of Claudius II and was known for defending love in the Empire. He secretly married couples despite the Emperor’s orders. The Emperor had cancelled all marriages and engagements in Rome as he believed that Roman men would not want to go to war if they had to leave their women and children behind. When Claudius II learned about these secret ceremonies, Valentine was sent to prison where he remained until his death, on February 14th. He was tortured to make him renounce his faith and clubbed to death, then beheaded. It is said that before his execution he performed a miracle by healing Julia, the blind daughter of his jailer (according to a later version, he is said to have fallen in love with her). He would have written the first “valentine” card himself, addressed to Julia, who was no longer blind, signing as “Your Valentine”.
St. Valentine did not have any romantic connotations until Chaucer’s poetry about “Valentines” in the 14th century, which is the first recorded association of Valentine’s Day with romantic love. Geoffrey Chaucer, in his Parlement of Foules (1382) wrote For this was on seynt Volantynys day, Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make. [For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.]
Chaucer wrote this poem to honour the first anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia. Readers wrongly assumed that Chaucer was referring to February 14th as Valentine’s Day; however, mid-February is an unlikely time for birds to be pairing up in England as it is still too cold. Chaucer was in fact referring to Valentine of Genoa, whose feast day was on May 2nd (the treaty providing for the royal marriage had been signed on May 2nd, 1381).
The first recorded Valentine’s note to his beloved was written by the Duke of Orleans, while imprisoned in the Tower of London following capture at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. In the poem the Duke talks of his love for his wife and refers to her as “my very sweet Valentine”. It is still kept at the British Museum.
By 1601 St. Valentine’s Day was already an established part of English tradition, as William Shakespeare makes mention of it in Ophelia’s lament in Hamlet: To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day, All in the morning betime, And I a maid at your window, To be your Valentine.
The passing of love-notes between sweethearts had become standard practice, as in 1797, The Young Man’s Valentine Writer was first published. This contained sentimental rhymes and ditties for those young gentlemen who were not able to think clearly enough to compose their own verse.
The custom of sending cards, flowers, chocolates and other gifts originated in the UK, and, therefore, Valentine’s Day still remains connected with various regional customs in England. In Norfolk, for example, a character called ‘Jack’ Valentine knocks on the door of houses leaving sweets and presents for children.
The reduction of the postal rates in the 19th century opened the path to the less personal but easier practice of mailing Valentines. It made it possible for the first time to exchange cards anonymously (Valentine notes are, by tradition, anonymous). Valentine cards became so popular that they started to be mass-produced. In Victorian times, the Valentine card took on a much more delicate form as it was often made out of lace paper, velvet and satin ribbons, embossed with the best quality material. These cards often had trick or secret panels in them, hiding secret messages to the girls concerned. This was because Victorian fathers were very strict and would not allow their daughters to receive any correspondence unless they had first read it and decided whether or not it was suitable. By 1872 the Post Office declared that parcels not exceeding 12 ounces in weight could be sent by letter post, so small gifts also started to be sent through the post.
Halfway through the 19th century, Esther Howland of Worcester, Massachusetts, following the English tradition, started to produce cards in the United States, using the newly available and much cheaper paper lace. It was from the United States that Valentine’s Day celebration spread to the rest of the world.
Do you already know how do you want to celebrate St. Valentine’s? You can spend a British evening watching some British movies, such as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Love Actually, Shakespeare in Love, Atonement or Sense and Sensibility, the later based in the homonymous novel by Jane Austen, a true romantic.
Maybe you want to make a special gift but you don’t want to shop for anything and make it yourself. I suggest this Dark Chocolate Truffles recipe. It is from one of my favourite blogs, Pemberley Cup & Cakes, where you will find many British baking recipes.
And last but not least, if you are lucky enough to be in the UK for St. Valentine’s celebrations, would you like to visit… Bath? Oxford? Canterbury? The Lake District? The Cotswolds? York? Or maybe taking a romantic tour around London and enjoy the views from The Shard while having dinner?