Valentine’s Day, also affectionately called Single’s Awareness Day, is coming up! For little kids, this means decorating a shoe box or paper bag and agonizing over which puppy Valentine card to give to their crush without giving their true feelings away, and for the really little ones, it means candy time. For married couples it’s a time to celebrate the life they’ve decided to make together and for younger couples it’s a time to get excited because it’s (hopefully) going to be a romantic and memorable night. Valentine’s Day is different for every person and couple and evokes a lot of different feelings depending on the state of your relationship, or lack thereof, at the time. But what few people think about is the history of Valentine’s Day and why we are shoveling out all this money to candy companies, flower stores, and Hallmark or even the different ways people celebrate the holiday around the world.
The History: The history of St. Valentine’s Day is actually shrouded in mystery. There were three possible saints with the name of Valentine around the same time who were all martyred. A popular belief is that Valentine was a priest during the 3rd century when Emperor Claudius II of Rome banned single men from taking wives. His rationing was that single men made better soldiers when wives and families didn’t distract them. Valentine believed too much in the love between couples and the joy of a family that he continued to marry young lovers in secret. When Emperor Claudius II discovered this, he ordered Valentine put in jail and sentenced to death. It was during his time in jail that another aspect of the Valentine’s Day history appears. It is said that while he was in jai,l he himself fell in love with the jailor’s daughter and the last note that he sent before he died was signed, “From your Valentine” marking the start of the first ever Valentine card.
So that’s the lovey-dovey history that most people know, but few know about the darker traditions that came before St. Valentine’s Day, such as the feast of Lupercalia. Lupercalia was a Pagan ritual that Pope Gelasius sought to outlaw by making the celebration of St. Valentine on the same day. Lupercalia was celebrated from February 13-15 and entailed the sacrifice of a goat for fertility and a dog for purification. The men would cut the goatskin into strips and walk through town hitting both the crops and the women to bless them with fertility.
Instead of being insulted that the men were slapping them with dead goatskin, the women welcomed it and hoped it would lead to a fertile year. At the end of the day, the women would place their names in an urn and the eligible men would draw a name: their partner for the night. If the match was a success then the couple would be married. The feast of Lupercalia ended when St. Valentine’s Day became the new way to celebrate couples.
Since the start of this Christian day, the celebration has spread around the world and adopted many new traditions:
In Denmark and Norway: There is a tradition that men will send the women “Gaekkebrev”; funny poems or rhyming love notes, signed anonymously with just a dot to symbolize each letter. It is then up to the women to deduce who the man is. If she succeeds, the man must give her an Easter Egg on Easter, but if she can’t figure out who it is, she has to give the man an Easter Egg.
In Finland and Estonia: In this part of the world, the day is more of a celebration of friendship. The day is called “Ystävät Päivä” in Finnish, which translates directly to “Friend’s Day”.
In Norfolk, England: There is a “Jack Valentine” who is basically the Santa Claus of Valentine’s Day. Jack Valentine knocks on children’s doors on Valentine’s Eve and leaves little treats and small presents.
In South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan: In these Asian countries, February 14th is the day that women give gifts of chocolate to the men, and sometimes friends in their life, with the quality of chocolate escalating the more important the man is to them. A month later on March 14th the men celebrate “White Day”. This is the day that the men then give the women gifts of lingerie, jewelry, or, once again, chocolate. One of the awesome perks of being a woman in one of these countries is also the fact that the gifts that the men give have to be at least doubled in value.
Although all these traditions seem exciting, I have to admit that my favorite has to be the American traditions. We look at it from all the angles. If you’re single you can have a fun girl’s night with your other single friends. If you’re in a relationship you can go have a romantic candlelight dinner filled with roses and chocolate. Even if you’re a five-year-old you’re included in the celebration with Valentine Cards and usually a party involving some yummy pink and red desserts. Valentine’s Day is a universal holiday for everyone no matter how old or young and it is this that makes it so special.