Folklore and Fun in Flirty February
Can you find the common link between an ancient Roman lottery, a martyred priest, Mrs. Samuel Pepys and a bay leaf?
The giveaway clue is a day in February. There you have it immediately because the only day in the month worthy of note is, of course, Valentine’s Day. On the 14th day of this month hearts beat a little faster and some unfortunately break. This isn’t merely a modern phenomenon — it has been the regular state of affairs for the best part of 2,000 years.
The tradition appears to have started in Ancient Rome when young people took part in the Festival of Lupercalia. This was in honour of the goddess Februate Juno and was celebrated on
15th February. The girls put their names, or a token, into a love urn, the boys took a lucky dip and the resulting couples paired off. It was a kind of primitive mating game and one that proved quite unacceptable when the old pagan religion was replaced by Christianity.
Gradually pagan festivals were Christianised and their dates associated, as closely as possible, with events on the Christian calendar. The popular Festival of Lupercalia fell conveniently close to the martyrdom of a Roman priest on 14th February 273 AD. His name was Valentine and in the process of time Februato Juno’s festival fell out of fashion to be replaced by St. Valentine’s Day.
St. Valentine was a noted celibate, a man of considerable courage who helped fellow Christians escape from Rome and death in the arena. He was captured, tortured, clubbed to death and finally beheaded. However, old habits die hard and St. Valentine’s name is now almost synonymous with Cupid’s which, to the unfortunate saint, might have seemed like a fate worse than death.
The Festival of Lupercalia has survived into the 21st century in a modified but remarkably similar form. Romantic expectations are still high and the element of chance remains because traditionally the first man a woman happens to see on that day is her Valentine.
This is where Samuel Pepys’ wife comes into the story. Desperate in case the first person she saw on St. Valentine’s Day was one of the painters decorating her house, she went about with her hands covering her eyes. One hopes that Samuel put in an early appearance!
Naturally it was the Victorians who introduced Valentine cards. Ideally suited to the times these anonymous cards, delivered by Penny Postage, gave young men a chance to speak of love when more direct advances would not have been socially acceptable. Covered in velvet, lace and satin ribbons, with a secret panel containing a message for her eyes only, such cards must have provoked many a lovesick sigh in the tightly laced Victorian breast.
To ensure that she would know who sent such a token of love any young woman worthy of her smelling salts would pin a bay leaf to her pillow the night before. This was bound to cause her to dream of her Valentine. A tip you may well decide to put to the test if you can find a bay tree.
A vintage postcard capturing love’s young dream! The Victorians introduced the idea of sending cards to sweethearts on St. Valentine’s Day.