Thursday, 14 February 2008

Happy Valentines Day

The history of Valentine's

Ever wondered how all this fluffy nonsense started?

Your pagan roots are showing

Long before it was actually called Valentine's Day, there was a good old pagan festival called Lupercalia. It was held in ancient Rome at the beginning of February to honour the god Pan and herald the arrival of Spring, and was associated with purification and fertility rituals. Sounds promising, eh?

During these rituals, goats and dogs were sacrificed, and young men were anointed with the blood. Then there was the usual feasting, raucous drinking, and so on, that we all know and love. Afterwards they had to run round and round the city slapping young women with strips of soggy goat flesh called Februa. Apparently this was welcomed as a blessing by the women as it was supposed to make them more fertile. Although the extra laundry probably wasn't.

Another cracking tradition: after they'd run out of slabs of dripping goat corpses, the names of all the young women in the city were placed into a giant urn. Each young man in the neighbourhood waited in turn to take a random name out of the urn, and the couple would be paired up together for a year after a bit more feasting, eroticism, and sexual-game playing. This weird matchmaking often resulted in marriage.

Valentine by name

The early Christians decided to put a stop to all this unbridled eroticism and overt sexuality, and changed the festival to one of romantic love. The prudes. They grabbed hold of a fantastic public relations opportunity in the shape of Saint Valentine. The Catholic Church recognises at least three people called Valentine or Valentinus, who were martyred, so the Valentine story could be about any one of them, or indeed all of them. One legend says that Valentine was a priest or bishop who lived in third century Rome.

"The early Christians decided to put a stop to all this unbridled eroticism and overt sexuality, and changed the festival to one of romantic love. The prudes."

The ruler at the time, Emperor Claudius II, decided to outlaw marriage and engagement because he wanted more men for his armies, and the locals preferred to make love, not war. Valentine carried out many secret marriages, plus the occasional miracle, and was finally caught in the act and imprisoned.

Rumour has it that while incarcerated, he fell madly in love with the jailer's daughter, who visited him often. One story says that he was beheaded, and the night before his execution, he sent his true love a note that he signed "from your Valentine." Other stories say that he just got sick and died in prison. Either way, it's his fault for all those crappy cards.

British folklore and traditions

Back in the UK during the Middle Ages, February 14 was traditionally thought to be the day that all the birds paired up for the year. Mating season, in other words. There were many rituals carried out by young maidens who wanted to find out the name of the man they would marry.
The oldest known Valentine card still in existence probably dates back to 1415, and was written by Charles, Duke of Orleans to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. They probably didn't have a romantic meal later that evening.

Valentine's Day celebrations in the UK began to be popular in the 16th or 17th century, and by the middle of the eighteenth century it was common for lovers and friends to exchange handwritten notes and gifts. The first manufactured cards became available at the end of the 18th century. And the rest, as they say, is history.