February - The Lovers Month
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Martyn Baguley discusses the story of St Valentine and the ancient customs associated with Valentine’s Day
Ask a few people to give you the name of a saint whose feast day occurs in February - there are more than 60 - and I would gamble that they either won’t be able to or nominate Saint Valentine. Why has he been adopted as the Patron Saint of Lovers when, according to the ‘Dictionary of British Folk Customs’, ‘Nothing whatsoever is known about St Valentine’?
Two of the 52 Saints called Valentine are said to have died for their religion on 14th February. Personally I like the idea that we can attribute Valentine’s Day to the one who was a young Roman priest. The Roman Emperor Claudius II, nicknamed Claudius the Cruel, was having difficulty recruiting men for his armies. Believing that this was due to them being reluctant to leave their families and loved ones, he forbade marriages in Rome. In defiance of this edict, Valentine secretly married couples. When this was discovered he was condemned to be beaten to death and have his head cut off in 269CE. The story goes that when in jail he restored the sight of the jailor’s blind daughter who fell in love with him. As he was taken away for execution he wrote ‘Always, your Valentine’ on a wall. Rings true, doesn’t it?
In Ancient Rome birds were believed to choose their mates on 14th February. The next day was the festival of Lupercalia, which was held where Romulus and Remus, legendary founders of Rome, were said to have been suckled by a wolf: Lupus is the Latin for wolf. During the festival girls exchanged presents with, and were the partners of, young men who had drawn their names at random out of a jar. Sometimes the partnerships lasted for a lifetime.
With the advent of Christianity, Christian festivals were grafted on to the old pagan rituals and, as Lupercalia began about the middle of February, gradually the celebrations of 14th February became dedicated to Saint Valentine. So Valentine’s Day was born.
It is, of course, a day for sending and, it is to be hoped, receiving Valentine cards which traditionally contain expressions of affection. Countless poets have penned Valentine’s Day poems, but none more affectionate than those discovered in an old school desk in Yorkshire:
I love you, I love you, I love you almighty,/ I wish your pyjamas were next to my nighty./ Don’t be mistaken, don’t be misled,/ I mean on the wash line and not on the bed
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And many ancient customs concerned with affairs of the heart are associated with Valentine’s Day. Some are obviously ridiculous; who really believes that a girl’s lover will be the first man she sees in the morning or that if she sees a crow she will marry a clergyman, a robin a sailor and a goldfinch a millionaire?
But I think that other customs should be revived as they could really help the lovelorn. For example, on Valentine’s Day eve, if you hard boil an egg, take out the yolk, fill it with salt and, without speaking or drinking, eat it shell and all before going to bed, you are sure to dream of your true lover. Or get appalling indigestion.