The Origins of Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day is linked to the Pagan festival of Lupercalia, which was celebrated on February 15th by young Romans centuries before Christ.  The celebration was held in honour of the goddess Februata Juno, and concerned all young people of marriageable age. The Names or tokens representing all the young girls in the district were placed in a love urn and the young lads each drew a token and the couples paired off.  This was a kind of mating lottery game. During the Roman occupation of Britain, the idea was brought to this country and adopted by the ancient Britons.  When people were converted to Christianity the pagan and Christian festivals were merged; the festival of Lupercalia  was put back a day and celebrated on St Valentine’s day, February 14th.  The old pagan customs still continued and in Britain up to the beginning of the present century it was customary for local lads and lasses to draw lots for partners.

In Saxon England and after, on St Valentine’s day it was customary for a boy to give the girl of his choice a love token, usually a pair of gloves. The glove was a sign of authority in olden times.  In Norwich, years ago, it was the general custom to give presents on St Valentine’s eve and packages containing all kinds of gifts were laid on doorsteps all over the city.  They were anonymous and usually just bore the message “a good morrow to you Valentine.”  It was normal practice to ring or knock on the door after depositing the package and then disappear.  Some parcels contained valuable presents while others were given as a kind of joke, being wrapped in many layers of paper punctuated at intervals by little notes of encouragement such as “Never despair!”.

It was not until the 15thC that the first greeting card was produced because, until that time, parchment was scarce and the majority of the people were illiterate.  The fore-runner of the paper Valentine was first seen in the 17thC and the first printed Valentine may have been the title page of a book of verses  published in 1669 entitled A Valentine Writer.  With the introduction of the penny postage and the use of envelopes in 1840 the popularity of the Valentine card increased.  In Victorian times it was often made out of lace paper, velvet and satin ribbons, embossed with the best quality material.  These cards often had trick or secret panels in them, hiding secret messages to the girls concerned.  Messages were also often hidden under folds of lace or ribbons.  This was because Victorian fathers were very strict and would not allow their daughters to receive any sort of correspondence unless they had first read it and decided whether or not it was suitable.

In 1872 the Post Office declared that parcels not exceeding 12 ounces in weight could be sent by letter post.  From that time, the custom of leaving presents on doorsteps decreased in importance.  The aristocracy, in the 17thC, often drew names for Valentines and the pairing lasted until the next Valentine day.  Gifts were expected by the ladies and often expensive gifts such as silk stockings, garters, jewellery and perfume were given.

Gifts have always been a traditional aspect of the lovers’ holiday. Flowers are the most common gift given, a dozen red roses or (more romantically and cheaper) just one red rose. Allegedly it was Charles II of Sweden, in the 18th Century, who introduced the idea of flowers symbolizing emotions, and the red rose was singled out for love.  The number of roses has significance to:-

1 rose = love   ..    12 roses = gratitude   ..   25 = congratulation  ..    50 unconditional love

Today, red roses stand for passionate love, pink roses for friendship, white for purity, and both red and white mean unity, or if you are a certain nurse in Shropshire “blood and bandages”.  Oh and make sure your red rose is a nice bright red, dark red roses are a symbol of death!

It is just as common for a woman to send a man a message of undying love, especially during a leap year, and on Valentine’s Day in a leap year it is the custom for women to ask their boyfriend or partner to marry them!  So watch out!



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