by Andrea Mulder-Slater
Valentine's Day has long offered many the opportunity to make up for a year's worth of neglect. It’s the one occasion where a few gooey chewies and a single red flower will make your sweetie swoon like there's no tomorrow. Give her a gift - for no reason - any other time of year and she wonders what you're trying to make up for.
Am I right?
Don't get me wrong, I'm all for this Valentine's Day stuff. Flowers, candy, cupids, hearts… it’s all so very special. But, have you ever sat wondering, hoping, that someone - anyone - would tell you how this whole ritual got started? Sure you have - and that’s why I'm here. So go ahead, put on something red, drink something warm and cinnamony, curl up on a fluffy pink chair, and read on.
First off, lets clear one thing up.
Valentine - a very virtuous and moral Saint - the man after whom this day is named - really had absolutely nothing to do with love and all things mushy. The only connection he had with February 14th is that in the year 270, it happened to be the day he died in a pool of his own blood. Poor bugger. Good old Valentine, was executed after being thumped with clubs and having his noggin chopped off on the evening of what we now call Valentine's Day.
However, there is a small connection between the headless one and all things passionate.
In Rome (where the Saint lived and died) there was a festival of sorts that took place every spring - every February 15th to be exact. It was known as Lupercalia, a feast of "purification" and believe you me, it was a very singular, very strange ceremony.
In a nutshell, it involved sacrificing goats and dogs, smearing blood, the cleansing power of milk, and running around the streets naked (except for teeny, tiny thongs made of dead goat skins). And, as if that wasn't carnal enough, the young women of Rome would, well, offer themselves to the naked men, otherwise known as helpers of conception and delivery.
Now there's a pick up line.
The Romans, hip as they were, were kind enough to introduce the British folk to their religious ceremonies and in this way, the festival of Lupercalia was established there. Eventually however some Fathers of Christianity with all of their immaculate conceptions, busied themselves by obliterating pagan superstitions and dates by substituting those of the Christian belief. Names of many of the martyred (slaughtered) Saints were used to replace old festivals. In this way - St. Valentine having bought it on the eve of the Lupercalia (February 14th - remember?) was to perpetuate forever the memory of this orgy - excuse me, festival - that celebrated the return of spring when "a young man's fancy lightly turns to thought of love."
Quite a legacy.
Speaking of love, it does make one do strange things doesn't it?
I'm not talking strange as in dancing around the streets wearing goat flesh. No, I'm thinking more along the lines of giving you're one and only a gift that screams I love you. A gift like - a pair of gloves. That was the thing to do in the 16th century. In the 17th century, things turned raunchy as silk stockings and garters were gifted. In the latter part of the 18th century, things simmered down a little. During this time, young women would give their one-and-only a piece of silk with an embroidered message which said things like, "I dig you the most" (or something like that.)
One particularly odd Victorian Era custom, inspired by Lupercalia, involved the names of young women being dropped into a box. Then, young men - guided purely by luck - would draw a name. A seemingly harmless pastime until you find out that the one you chose would be your Valentine for that ENTIRE year. Most certainly, there were occasions when chance was unfortunate in providing the wrong sort of partner, and to have to endure this kind of Valentine as one's "special friend" for one whole year must have been trying, to say the least.
Needless to say, not many participated in such recreational activities, especially those who's intelligence rose above it.
Valentine's Day rituals and customs evolved and experienced both declines and resurgences in popularity throughout the years. One practice that has more or less stayed with us is the sending of valentines to the ones we admire. The forerunners of today’s valentines were love knots - decorated hand written and coloured letters with sets of verses and sentimental messages of love.
Today, things are much simpler. Just pop into the corner store, grab anything with a heart and voila, the deed is done.