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Valentine's Day: from Lupercalia to Goldfinches to Candy Hearts

by Barbara Collishaw

When I looked into the history of Saint Valentine's Day and some of its customs, I found that some things are certain and others mysterious. It is not clear which saint named Valentine is honoured on this day, for as many as seven Christian saints have shared that name. Some historians think the festival may have originated as a replacement for the Roman feast of Lupercalia, celebrated each year on February 15. The feast took place at the cave called Lupercal, where legend said the twin founders of Rome—Romulus and Remus—were sheltered and suckled in their infancy by a she-wolf.

Lupercalia may have honoured Lupercus, the god who watched over shepherds, goatherds, and their flocks, but some believe lupus, the wolf, may be the source of the feast's name. During Lupercalia, the youths of the city sacrificed goats, then feasted on the meat and adorned themselves with pieces of the goatskins. After a rowdy dinner with much wine, they would run nearly naked through the streets, striking everyone they met with the goatskins, especially young married women, who viewed this as an aid to fertility. The strips of goatskin were called februa, which also means "cleaners." So it appears that February, being the final month of the Roman year, was clean-up time.

The feast of Lupercalia marked the first day of spring and of the new year. On that occasion, the young men drew the names of young women and so were matched as couples for the year. Sometimes they married; sometimes they did not.

In the late 5th century, Pope Gelasius banned the celebration of Lupercalia and chose February 14 as the feast day of Saint Valentine. The young people still drew names—not each other's but a saint's name—and were encouraged to model their lives on that of the saint during the coming year.

In medieval times, the custom of drawing lots swung back from saints to romantic mates. Each young man would wear his partner's name on his breast or sleeve to indicate his devotion, and thus began the saying "wear your heart on your sleeve," which means to make your love public.

In Britain, Chaucer, Shakespeare and many other poets referred to the popular belief that on February 14 the birds chose their mates and began their spring nesting season. It should be said that winter in Britain and continental Europe is mercifully shorter and milder than in most of Canada!

The young women of medieval times tried to divine who their mate would be by watching the birds on February 14; if a girl saw a robin, she would marry a sailor; if it was a goldfinch, she would find a rich husband; and if the first bird seen was a sparrow, she would marry a poor man but live "happily ever after."

Valentine's Day customs became particularly elaborate during Victorian times; fancy cards decorated with pictures and lace were handmade or bought and given to current or potential sweethearts. Heart-shaped boxes of chocolates first appeared in the 1880s. Flowers were often exchanged as love tokens, and each colour and variety had a particular meaning.

For decades now, Valentine's Day has been popular with children, greeting card and candy manufacturers, and romantics of all kinds. But a day so overflowing with sweetness often provokes a sour response from the more cynical among us. "Roses are red, violets are blue, you look like a goat, and smell like one too" is one of those nasty rhymes that have been around for many years. Personally, I prefer the silly puns on the children's cards: "Bee mine, Honey?" or "You'd be a purr-fect Valentine" with their literal-minded illustrations.

Whether you celebrate Saint Valentine's Day romantically or rail cynically against it, the folklore surrounding February 14 is here to stay. Your response may be sweet this year and sour the next, depending on what the Fates have in store for you—and your sweetheart.