Valentine’s Day is just around the corner and I’m sure there will be many of you who will mark it in some way by perhaps giving your other half a card or a gift, or by celebrating with a romantic meal.
It’s not certain when the Christian Feast of St Valentine became associated with love, and there is some confusion about the identity of the saint who gives his name to this special day. In fact a number of saints called Valentine exist, and up to three can lay claim to the day itself. Generally, a day named after a saint marks the date they passed away.
There is an interesting story that explains the link between the saint and love. Claudius II was a ferocious leader determined to expand the Roman Empire when he became Caesar in AD268. He led ambitious military campaigns, and needed a plentiful supply of soldiers to execute his plans. However, he was struggling to get men to volunteer. Rather than blame their reluctance on the fear of being hacked to death, Claudius claimed the cause was the attachment the men felt towards their wives and families at home. His solution was to ban all weddings and engagements in Rome.
The priest Valentine objected to this and continued to perform marriages in secret. When Claudius found out, Valentine was thrown into prison and condemned to death. While incarcerated, he befriended the jailer’s daughter and left her a farewell message which he signed, “From your Valentine.” He was beaten and beheaded on February 14th in about AD269.
Another version of the tale has the girl being blind, and Valentine miraculously cures her just so that she can read the note (incidentally, you can only become a saint if you have performed miracles during your lifetime). Although it is an entertaining story, and nicely connects the saint with love and romance, it is more than likely to be complete hogwash.
There are ancient accounts which suggest there were two, or even three, saints with this name who were martyred in Rome on 14th February, but it is also possible that they were one and the same man. What we do know is that at least one person with this name was killed on that date and his remains lie on the Via Flaminia in Rome.
As my dad mentions in his column from 13th February 1982, rural folklore states that February 14th is when birds begin to look for their mates. A Valentine was also the name given to a physical gift, as well as to the person giving it.
At one time, apples or oranges would be presented on Valentine’s Day, and later it was more likely to be cakes and buns. Children would go from door to door, a bit like they do for Halloween these days, and when the door was opened, they’d recite a rhyme a bit like this:
‘Good morning Valentine, curl your locks as I do mine,
Two before and three behind, good morning Valentine.’
During the Middle Ages, the custom developed of sending a message or poem to your loved one. The earliest known written Valentine’s message is a 1477 letter by Margery Brews to a John Paston whom she describes as her ‘ryght welebeloued Voluntyne (right well-beloved Valentine)’. In it, she promises to be a good wife, and begs him not to give her up following her parents’ refusal to increase her dowry.
‘Myne herte me bydds ever more to love yowe truly (my heart me bids ever more to love you truly),’ she writes. Margery did get her way, and the pair wed and had a son, William, in 1479.
I’m not sure how many people still exchange Valentine’s cards, but it is certainly not a tradition embraced by my children and their peers. My eldest son is now 25 and when prompted said he might get his girlfriend a card, but will definitely mark it with a gift and a meal out. The other two (aged 23 and 19) said there was no chance they’d ever buy a card as it’s only what old people like me do.
I suppose they have a point, and on February 14th I’m going to wait and see if a telltale red envelope pops through the letterbox. And if it does, then I will definitely start believing in miracles.
Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug
This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 11th and the Gazette & Herald on 9th February 2022