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A Guide to Valentine’s Day

23 January 2018

Valentine’s Day is celebrated around the world on 14 February, but have you ever wondered about the history of the holiday? Irish Valentines celebrate this day of love, in the same way as many others around the world. Enjoying romantic dinners together, giving cards and gifts like flowers or chocolate, along with various other gestures to show their affection for one another. However, what most people don’t realise is that Dublin has a stronger connection to Valentine’s Day than most. A relic said to be partial remains of St Valentine, gifted by Pope Gregory XVI in 1836, still sits in a shrine to the saint in the Carmelite Church on Aungier Street, and it can be visited by anyone who wishes to pay their respects to the patron saint of love. But where did the tradition of Valentines Day start?

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact origin of Valentine’s day.  It is believed to have a link with the ancient Roman pagan fertility festival of Lupercalia, which was celebrated on 13, 14 and 15 February. However the celebrations took a slightly different form in those days.  Allegedly the young men would strip naked, and pursue the young women in order to whip their backsides with goat-skin whips.  This was believed to improve their fertility, and the girls would line up to be whipped.  This somewhat brutal (or perhaps kinky) festival also included a matchmaking lottery, with the young women putting their names in a jar, to be drawn by the men. The resulting match would couple up for at least the duration of the festival – longer if the match was considered good.

Around AD496 Pope Gelasius declared 14 February to be St Valentine’s day which some say was an attempt to reclaim the pagan festival for Christianity. This saint’s day was named for one of a few possible Christian martyrs, as the church recognises at least 3 St Valentines, all of which were martyred.  The history and links to today’s romantic traditions are muddied, with various theories and legends circulating.

A second legend contends that Valentine was a priest during the 3rd century in Rome, when Emperor Claudius II outlawed marriage for young men, believing that single men made better soldiers.   Valentine defied the decree, and performed secret weddings for young couples. Discovered by Claudius, Valentine was put to death. However no evidence exists to suppose that such a ‘wedding ban’ ever existed.

Another story suggests that Valentine was imprisoned and killed for helping Christians escape harsh Roman prisons.  According to this theory, in his efforts to convert the Romans to Christianity, Valentine performed a miracle by healing the blind daughter of his jailor, who visited him during his confinement.  Although the jailor was converted, he was unable to reprieve Valentine, who wrote a letter to the young lady before his execution, signed ‘from your Valentine’ – an expression that is still used today.

Although the truth remains unclear, the common perception of Valentine is of a heroic and romantic figure, which by the Middle Ages made him one of the most popular saints in England and France.  From the 14th to 17th centuries the day began to be associated with romantic love, and by the middle of the 18th century, friends and lovers were exchanging handwritten notes and small tokens of affection. By 1900 improvements in printing, and cheaper postage costs meant that printed cards were replacing written letters, with pre-printed poems and quotes. The anonymity of pre-prepared, sometimes racy, verse was part of the appeal and made it easier for people to express their emotions in those repressed times. In parts of the country more money was spent on Valentine’s gifts than on Christmas. In the second half of the 20th century the gifts were usually roses and chocolates, however in the 1980s the diamond industry began to promote the 14th of February as an occasion for giving jewelery.  Some might say that the rise of the internet has started the decline of romance, as some 15 million e-cards were sent in 2010.

Around the world, Valentine’s Day is celebrated in a variety of ways.   In Japan, women gift chocolate to the men in their lives, according to a strict protocol from ‘ultra-obligatory’ chocolate they may give to someone they are not particularly fond of but feel obligated to, for example a male co-worker, through a spectrum of gifts up to homemade or extra special chocolate gifted to boyfriends, lovers or husbands. In the 1980s Japanese chocolate companies came up with ‘White Day’ on 14th March. In another opportunity to sell more chocolate, men reciprocate by giving chocolate back to the women, with the protocol being that the gift should traditionally be two or three times more extravagant than the one they received in February.

South Korea take it a step further, adding ‘Black Day’ on 14th April, where single people who did not receive chocolate in February or March, meet up at restaurants to eat a consolation dish of ‘jajangmyeon’ noodles with a black bean sauce, and commiserate with each other for being single.

In Wales, men still gift ‘love spoons’ to their sweethearts – an age-old tradition which is believed to have originated amongst sailors. The lovers will carve intricately decorated wooden spoons and present them to the lucky lady. The designs are considered symbolic, with a carving of keys signifying a man’s heart, wheels his hard work and beads his preferred number of offspring, and so on.

The county of Norfolk in England has a Jack Valentine who is said to knock at children’s doors and leave them little treats and presents, enigmatically vanishing into thin air. However children are warned about a darker figure that may appear, known as Snatch Valentine.  When the child eagerly opens the door and reaches for the gift, it is immediately yanked away on a piece of string. The child will have been given dire warnings about the consequences of following the gift, but the process repeats each time the child reaches, until eventually the gift is relinquished to the possibly traumatised youngster.

Here in Dublin there are many ways to celebrate the day. Why not take a romantic stroll up Love Lane in Temple Bar? Or instead of buying stuffed animal toys for your lover you could take them to visit the real thing! Start Valentine’s Day with a Date Morning at Dublin Zoo with your own special love bird. This over 18’s event includes a delicious breakfast picnic and special talks about the love and mating rituals of the animal kingdom. Or you could visit that relic of St Valentine. However you plan to celebrate Valentine’s Day, we can make it extra special for you here at Aberdeen Lodge.

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