I love Valentine’s Day! Even in years when I’ve been single I’ve loved it when the stores fill up with pink and red boxes of candy, poetic cards, and bouquets of balloons. I like crying at jewelry commercials (even when the jewelry is ugly!) and re-watching favorite romantic movies. So I was very excited when I heard that Signet would be re-launching their Regency line, with my first book Scandal in Venice, on this great holiday.
Another thing I love is researching traditions and rituals in other cultures and other historical periods (which is one reason why I enjoy writing books set in places like Venice). So I thought I would take a look at how Valentine’s Day has been celebrated in the past….
Historians trace the origin of Valentine’s Day to the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia, a holiday on February 14th to honor the goddess Juno (among other things the patron of women and marriage, though maybe Venus might have been a better Valentine’s Day choice!). On the following day, February 15th began the fertility festival called ‘Feast of Lupercalia,’ which often turned into a big, wild party.
An interesting custom of the Feast of Lupercalia was to bring together young men and women who otherwise were strictly separated. On the eve of the festival names of young Roman girls were written on a slip of paper and placed into jars. Each young man drew out a girl’s name from the jar and was paired with the girl for the duration of Lupercalia. Sometime this pairing lasted until the next year’s celebration, and sometimes the couple would fall in love with each other and marry.
But it was actually due to the Christian priest and martyr St Valentine that today’s holiday got its name. The story goes that during the reign of Emperor Claudius, Rome was involved in several bloody and unpopular wars. Recruting new soliers was hard because a lot of men didn’t want to leave their wives and families to take part in such hopeless campaigning, so Claudius canceled all engagements in Rome. Saint Valentine defied Claudius’s orders. and performed secret marriages. When his defiance was discovered, Valentine was brutally beaten and put to death on February 14, about 270 AD and later became a saint.
Around 498 AD, Pope Gelasius declared February 14 as St. Valentine’s Day to honor the martyr Valentinus and to end the pagan celebration. By the Middle Ages, Valentine became a heroic and romantic figure in England and France, perfect for the cult of chivalry. Valentine’s Day Cards are even said to have originated in medieval France. Charles, Duke of Orleans is said to have written the first Valentine’s Day card. He was captured at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 and wrote a poem or ‘Valentine’ to his wife while locked in the Tower of London. This letter is still in the collection of the British Library in London, England.
There was a popular belief in Great Britain and France during 14th and 15th century that birds begin to mate on February 14, halfway through the month of February. In the Paston Letters, Dame Elizabeth Brews writes thus about a match she hopes to make for her daughter (spelling modernized), addressing the favored suitor:
And, cousin mine, upon Monday is Saint Valentine’s Day and every bird chooses himself a mate, and if it like you to come on Thursday night, and make provision that you may abide till then, I trust to God that ye shall speak to my husband and I shall pray that we may bring the matter to a conclusion.
Unmarried girls in Britain and Italy used to wake up before sunrise on Valentine’s Day. They believed that the first man they glimpsed on Valentine’s Day (or someone who looked like him!) would marry them within a year. Girls would wake up early to stand by their window and wait for the right man to pass by. Shakespeare mentions this tradition in Hamlet (1603). Ophelia sings:
Good morrow! ‘Tis St. Valentine’s Day
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your valentine!
Another tradition in Great Britain made women pin four bay leaves to the corners of their pillow and eat eggs with salt replacing the removed yokes (yuck!) on Valentine’s Day eve. Unmarried girls also wrote their lover’s names on paper and put them on clay balls that they would drop into the water. It was believed that whichever paper came up first, that man would be their future husband…
These are just a few of the fun Valentine’s Day traditions out there! I like to imagine that my heroines would receive letters and bouquets (and maybe a diamond bracelet or two!) from their heroes, but I hope they wouldn’t resort to eating eggs full of salt. What are some of your favorite Valentine’s Day traditions? How will you or did you celebrate the day??