“With the earth and the sky and the water,
remade, like a casket of gold
For my dreams of your image that blossoms
a rose in the deeps of my heart.”
William Butler Yeats
Countless poets have written on the subject of love, using nature to express its beauty and power. Love poems and flowers are a significant part of Valentine’s Day tradition as we know it, but surprisingly they’re a tradition that predates Valentine’s Day itself. Here’s a brief exploration of its origins and how the world has embraced ‘the day of love’.
France lays claim to the first Valentine’s Day card; sent by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1415. Today, the French are less inclined to send cards and more inclined to indulge in a love of good food. Traditionally, they held a loterie d’amour, a “drawing for love” event where men and women go from house to house calling out to each other and making love matches. Women who found no match by the end of the evening (along with women whose matches had been swayed by someone else) would hold a bonfire often burning pictures of the men who had spurned them. The bonfires often got out of hand and have since been banned, but France happily indulges the usual Valentine’s Day traditions with gusto.
La Festa Degli Innamorati
Italy’s day of lovers is said to herald from Roman times where Lupercalia (the she wolf god representing fertility) was celebrated from 13-15th February and the festival of the goddess Juno (the goddess of women and marriage) took place during the 13-14th February. Italian legend also notes priest names St Valentine who defied the Roman emperors’ decree banning marriage during wartime and held secret weddings. Once discovered, he was executed on February 14th. Italy has many connections with Valentine’s Day that intertwine love with death, from the unfortunate priest Valentine to Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers of Verona.
Verona itself indulges in a four-day event with concerts, a giant red heart is painted on the street at the centre of Piazza dei Signori and a competition for the most beautiful love note to Juliet. Modern traditions include the consumption of Baci - chocolate candies filled with red cherry rather than hazelnut and wrapped in a shiny red ‘love note’ foil; and lovers locks. Best-selling book Ho voglio di te by Federico Moccia has created a cult phenomenon where couples attach a padlock or lucchetti to a bridge and throw the key into the water to signify the strength of their relationship. Interesting too that small gold key charms are handed out to children at the Oratorio di San Giorgio Chapel, Padua, on Valentine’s Day as St. Valentine is also the Patron Saint of epilepsy (also known as St. Valentine’s affliction).
Ημέρα του Αγίου Βαλεντίνου
Greece lays claim to Valentine’s Day’s invention, thousands of years ago in Arcadia when Pan god of nature frolicked in the meadows with the nymphs in spring. This February ‘festival of spring’, said to bring health and fertility and cleansing, has little to do with romance but modern-day celebrations have performed a Trojan Horse takeover in Greece and now romantic cards, chocolates and flowers are the norm.
Día de El Corte Inglés
Spain isn’t convinced about Valentine’s Day and often refer to it as ‘the day of their main department store’ because of its commercial nature. That’s not to say Spain doesn’t indulge in romance, there are two significant dates for celebration: April 23 for St. George’s Day or La Diada de Sant Jordi where lovers exchange books and roses; and 9th October, the Day of Saint Dionysius (Sant Dionís) patron saint of lovers when Valencian custom has Mocadora (Mocaorà), marzipan figures wrapped in silk being given as gifts to women. February 14th is still recognisable in Spain as Valentine’s Day however..
Valentine’s Day was brought to Germany by the Americans stationed there following the war; .the first Valentine’s Ball was even held in Nuremberg in 1950. Since then Germany has fallen in love with the celebration with 1,000 tons of roses and heart-shaped gingerbread biscuits being exchanged every year.
Valentine’s Day US
The Americans have celebrated Valentine’s Day since the 19th century but its popularity has grown exponentially. Even school children are encouraged to exchange cards, give gifts to the teacher and hold a Valentine’s Day Party with heart-shaped food. From children in school to the US President, much is made of Valentine’s Day in the US. See President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle’s tradition of writing funny love poems to each other.
El Día de los Enamorados
Much of Latin America recognises February 14th as the “day of lovers” or of love and friendship where people give gifts to show their appreciation of one another; sometimes anonymously as the popular Amigo Secreto - a ‘secret Santa’ type of Valentine’s Day gift giving . Some parts of Latin America do not recognise it and hold their own celebrations such as Dia dos Namorados in Brazil on June 12th where couples exchange flowers and chocolates while single women perform rituals to find a good husband.
Many countries do not celebrate Valentine’s Day due to religious sensibilities and many only began to thanks to the proliferation of western TV; India for example only began to acknowledge it in 1992. Other countries have embraced it into their culture: China has chosen to add the ‘lovers’ festival’ to its Qixi Festival and the Night of Sevens which are both celebrations of union; Japan sees gender roles reversed with women giving men gifts of chocolates; and in South Africa, people dress in red and white in celebration of love and purity. Many countries have broadened Valentine’s Day’s remit too: in Finland, cards and gifts are given in friendship as well as love; while in Russia, the Valentine’s tradition of giving chocolate and flowers has been extended to International Women’s Day on March 8th.
Valentine’s Day UK
In the UK, in the 14th century, Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem Parlement of Foules was the earliest record of an association with the word ‘Valentine’: ‘For this was on St. Valentine's Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate’. This wouldn’t have been the February 14th celebration we are familiar with but it is interesting how nature’s regeneration in spring has come to represent the beginnings of a romance. The exchanging of gifts became popular due to ‘courtly love’; that is, the signs of romantic interest, such as letters and gifts of flowers and jewellery, exchanged secretly in court. The Valentine’s Day we recognise now is an evolution of both of these traditions. It is easy to see how the pairing off of birds and animals in spring has intertwined with the giving of gifts to become synonymous with love the world over.
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