Valentine was purportedly a priest who lived in Rome around 270AD. The Emperor Claudius II issued a decree forbidding military recruits to marry, in the belief that single men make better soldiers. As a Christian, Valentine believed marriage was a holy sacrament and continued to perform weddings in secret. He was brought before Claudius, who was impressed with his rhetoric and tried to convert him to paganism; but Valentine refused, and was sentenced to death. Whilst in prison, he miraculously healed his jailer’s blind daughter. The night before his execution, he sent her a note signed ‘From your Valentine’. So the first Valentine’s card was from a priest and a convict. Not an auspicious start for a festival of love….
The Feast of Saint Valentine was established by Pope Gelasius in 469AD on February 14th. Because his story is rather unreliable, it was deleted from the Calendar of Saints in 1969. But Amor vincit omnia – Love conquers all – and the festival has taken firm root in popular imagination. The day became associated with romantic love in the Middle Ages, when the tradition of courtly love flourished. In 1382, Geoffrey Chaucer composed a poem commemorating the betrothal of King Richard II to Anne of Bohemia (they were both only fourteen years old). He wrote,
For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.
(‘For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.’)
By the 15th century, Valentine’s Day had evolved into an occasion in which lovers expressed their affection by presenting flowers, sweetmeats and greeting cards (known as ‘valentines’). In 1797, a British publisher issued The Young Man’s Valentine Writer, which contained scores of sentimental verses for the young lover unable to compose his own. By the early nineteenth century printers were producing cards with poems and pictures, decorated with ribbons and paper lace. The introduction of the ‘Penny Post’ in 1840 made it feasible to post Valentines. That, in turn, made it easy to exchange cards anonymously – which accounts for the sudden appearance of rather racy rhymes in the otherwise prudish Victorian era!
Valentine’s Day is now big business in the greetings card industry. This is one area where the Internet has not made substantial inroads: you can’t make an anonymous Facebook declaration of affection. Modern symbols of love include hearts, doves, and the winged figure of Cupid firing his arrows. But a card will hardly suffice for the serious suitor. Chocolates, flowers and theatre tickets are least the modern miss will expect. And if a man fails to measure up, he only has two weeks to prove his worth….
For February 29th is traditionally the day on which a single girl might propose to her partner. The day occurs only once every four years, because the earth actually goes around the sun in 365 ¼ days. (There’s still a discrepancy of 0.000125 days so in 4,000AD our calendar will be one day out. But lovers don’t worry about such things). February 29th is an anomaly: according to olde English law, it had no legal status. Folks assumed that social mores were similarly suspended on that day.
The proposal custom is said to have started in 5th century Ireland, when St. Brigid complained to St. Patrick about women having to wait so long for a man to make his move. St. Patrick was a man ahead of his time: he replied that women could take matters into their own hands on this one day in February. (Very prescient, seeing that Pope Gregory didn’t introduce his new-fangled calendar until 1582). Tradition states that any man who declines a leap year proposal must pay a fine, ranging from a kiss to a pair of silk gloves.
These days, women might prefer to choose their own gloves: at the very least, a man should get a gift receipt. But Valentine’s Day in many countries is as much about friendship as erotic love. It’s a chance to tell the people who matter – whether it’s your girlfriends or your grandchildren – how much they mean to you. And if you’re feeling cynical about the whole amorous affair, here’s a modern-day version of The Valentine Writer (feel free to add your own suggestions as comments)!
“Love me little, love me long.” (English Folksong)
“Love and hate are necessary to human existence.” (William Blake)
“Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but of looking together in the same direction.” (Antoine de Saint-Expury)
‘LifeWorks‘ by Jane Bailey Bain looks at relationship patterns and life themes.
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