On Valentine’s Day, the world is painted in shades of red and pink. Heart-shaped cards, teddy bears, love letters, homemade chocolates and rose bouquets find their way in almost every home on February 14th. Do you ever stop to wonder how this holiday came to be? Who is this Valentine, the patron saint of this holiday, and what is his association with love and romance?
There are different stories about the origin of St. Valentine but the most commonly known one (and most widely accepted) is of a priest in third century Rome. According to the legend, Emperor Claudius II believed that men made better soldiers when they were unmarried and so he outlawed marriage in order to get more conscripts in the Roman army.
A young priest by the name of Valentine (or Valentinus in some cases) believed the emperor’s decree to be unjust and continued to marry young lovers in secret. Eventually, Claudius discovered his actions and has him arrested and sentenced to death. Valentine was visited by his jailer’s daughter and eventually fell in love with her. Before he was executed, it is said that he had written a letter to her that was signed “From your Valentine”. He was executed on February 14, 270 A.D. and was celebrated as the saint and symbol of love and romance from the middle Ages onwards.
Due to that love letter of his, his name “Valentine” is now homonymous to the word “lover” and is used to show devotion from the sender to the receiver of the love letters sent that day. St. Valentine is known as a martyr by the Catholic Church and although not much is known about him, he is celebrated as the saint of couples and is remembered through the tradition of showing love to loved ones on the day of his death.
St. Valentine became very popular in Great Britain and France during the middle Ages. He gained a lot of popularity in Great Britain, in particular, during the 17th century. By the mid-18th century, February the 14th was celebrated by people of all social classes who exchanged gifts, letters and flowers with their loved ones.
Flowers became a very symbolic gift during the 18th century when Charles II of Sweden introduced it. By attaching meaning to different types of flowers, people were able to pass non-verbal messages through bouquets and it soon became a custom even in today’s world. Flowers were so significant to the celebration of Valentine’s Day that they became a frequently discussed topic in both real life and literature.
The flower of the holiday is the rose and more specifically the red rose. Different colors of roses represent different things and although meanings changed with time, the symbolism of the red rose remained the most consistent through the ages as a symbol of romance and love. Non-lovers also exchange roses on the holiday but prefer colors like pink and white that represent familial love or friendship. Apart from the rose’s meaning for Valentine’s Day, it has become a well-known symbol of romance in modern media as well.
The holiday is celebrated differently in each country depending on the country’s culture, general attitudes towards love, and when the holiday was first introduced in that country.
England – England was one of the first countries to celebrate St. Valentine’s Day and along with the United States, Mexico and Canada, that’s where most of the most common traditions and attitudes branched off.
In England, women used to place bay leaves (sometimes dipped in rosewater) on their pillows before they went to bed. They would place five, one at each corner and one in the center, in order to dream of their future husbands.
Nowadays, it is a more commercialized holiday where shops feature Valentine’s-themed items. Everything rose-shaped, heart-shaped, pink, red and associated with love is snatched off of the shelves of stores and either presented to a lover or kept for decoration. Not as romantic as a bay leaf ritual to dream of your soul mate but it works.
Denmark – Just like in Cyprus, Valentine’s Day was not introduced until the late 80s- early 90s. Denmark was still able to create its own traditions despite that though.
On February 14th, men give women gaekkebrev (a joking letter). These letters are usually cut in intricate patters, resembling lace handkerchiefs, and contain a joke or funny poem of some sort. These letters are anonymous and are usually signed with an ellipsis. The woman receiving the letter has to correctly guess her sender’s identity in order to earn herself an Easter egg later on that year.
France – It is believed by many that the celebration began in France by Charles, Duke of Orleans who sent love letters to his wife when he was imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1415.
A French tradition called loterie d’amour (“lottery of love”) requires men and women to fill two houses facing each other - men in one house and women in the other- and draw a number. They would then call out to each other and get paired off. If a man was unsatisfied with his match, he could leave her for another.
The unpaired or abandoned women would then gather at a bonfire where they would burn the pictures of the men who wrong them followed by a chorus of swears and insults of the opposite sex. This tradition got out of hand and the French government had to eventually ban it.
South Korea – Valentine’s Day in South Korea and many other Asian countries is dedicated to the women. Women, who wish to woo their crushes or give gifts to their husbands, are expected to buy them a gift or a box of chocolates. Chocolates are the most popular Valentine’s Day gift to present to a man and they are worth more in value if they are homemade, decorated and wrapped. The more effort a woman has put into making the chocolates, the more devoted she seems to the receiver.
The men who received gifts and chocolates on Valentine’s Day, regardless of whether they accepted the woman’s feelings, are expected to return the favor on March 14, also known as “White Day”.
As both holidays are celebrated on the 14th of each month, the South Korean government has continued the trend for other months of the year. A holiday directly associated with the other two is “Black Day”, celebrated on April 14. This holiday is dedicated to the singles that have not received gifts on either previous holiday. Singles usually celebrate this holiday by mourning and eating Jajangmyeon, noodles with black sauce.
Italy – Valentine’s Day, like most Western countries, celebrates the holiday in a similar manner to England. In the past though, it was celebrated during a Spring Festival in which young amorous people would gather in gardens to listen to music and recite poems.
An old tradition in Italy was for women to wake up before dawn on Valentine’s Day and look for their future husbands. The first man they spotted on that day was said to be the man they would marry before the end of the year or would strongly resemble their future husband.
Wales – In Wales it’s very unlikely that you’ll see people celebrate St. Valentine and that’s because they have their own patron saint of love, St. Dwynwen, on January 25th.
An old Welsh tradition for lovers includes men presenting their women with “love spoons”. They would usually carve wooden spoons themselves in intricate patterns and unique patterns. The spoons had many symbols carved unto them to represent different blessings that they gave to their union. An example would be carving wheels to represent support.
Love Spoons are still given as presents nowadays on births, anniversaries and weddings.
There are countless ways to express your love for your friends, families and lovers. You can go the traditional route and create something from scratch but if you are restricted by time and money, look no further! The students of Year 6 have come to the rescue! They will be standing in front of the Memorial Building, the Year 6 benches and will also be going around during recess till Valentine’s Day. You can send anonymous gifts, hugs and kisses, teddy bears and roses and of course chocolates! Have a happy Valentine’s Day!