Folk­lore and Fun in Flirty Fe­bru­ary

This England - - Cornucopia - MAR­ION CARAGOUNIS

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.

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