I always feel a bit scrooge-like when the middle of February rolls round each year. We have just about gotten over the excesses of the winter holiday season, paid off our credit card bills, forgotten most of our New Year’s resolutions, settled back into everyday routines, when, out of the blue, a blizzard of red hearts and guilt-making reminders start appearing in every shop window. It is all terribly distracting: what about our triple dip recession? The plight of QPR? Bayern’s visit to the Emirates next week? The pope’s shock resignation? Obama’s call for tighter gun control? The period of mourning following Sarah’s departure [sob]? The febrile state of our coalition government? The race for the Oscars? Or the horsemeat in hob nobs controversy [just kidding, you coffee talkers!]. We momentarily put everything on hold to think of sickly sweet rhymes for Josephine” [morphine maybe], “Mathilda” [I’m not touching this one], Geoffrey” [close to leprosy] and “Norman” [don’t go ‘stormin’ my heart, now]. Tagging along with the hearts is the considerable social pressure to participate in the February spending spree and its associated nonsense. Hands up anyone who has a boyfriend or girlfriend, a steady partner, a wife or a husband, a dog or a cat who doesn’t feel pressured to jump on the red heart bandwagon. I thought so, “no one”. How many beautiful bouquets of flowers will arrive on February 13th and 14th at the London Center? I know someone who is flying all the way to the USA on February 14th to be with her valentine! As the French would say it’s all a bit ‘de trop’!
But what is it all about, this annual effusion of sweet terms of endearment, purchasing of flowers, sending of cards, checking out jewellery shops for heart-shaped baubles - to say nothing of lingerie shops - and dining out “a deux”? No one seems to know for sure, other than the Christian church recognises at least three St Valentines from the period of the Roman Empire. [Query: does that mean we can all be polygamous about Valentines? For example, Martha is my number 1 valentine, Jane is number 2 and my unnamed secret passion is number 3! Somehow I’m not sure my wife would buy this logic, however well rooted it is the tradition of the Saint. But the ‘three’ fits neatly into the ICLC staff structure. ‘Let’s pretend we’re foreign, Thorunn;’ ‘Let’s indulge in some stormy weather, Heather’; ‘Wanna help me clear up my office mess, Jess?’]
All three Valentines were martyrs for their faith, and in my humble opinion, deserved to be martyred for the guilt trip they left behind. The books tell us that Valentine was either a priest who wed people against the Emperor’s orders so that the young men could avoid joining the army; or he was a jailed priest who fell in love with his jailer’s daughter and, while awaiting execution, wrote her a note including the line “from Your Valentine”, or he was a priest or Bishop who sacrificed his life to tend maltreated prisoners.
We probably get closer to the truth when we link February 14th with the ancient Roman feast of Lupercalia. Apparently on the day before the feast began, the names of young women were placed in a jar and young men had to choose a name and then associate with her for the festival. If all went well, the haphazard Lupercalian link might lead to marriage. The feast of Lupercalia was also associated with the goddess Juno, the Queen of the Roman pantheon, who doubled as the goddess of marriage and women. When the Empire switched from paganism to Christianity, the Bishop of Rome substituted the Roman St Valentine for the pagan Lupercus. The tradition was revived in the 14th and 15th centuries in western Europe, possibly as a part of the Renaissance revival of classical styles, but also because the month of February is associated with mating in north-western Europe. Since the first shoots of spring and warmer westerly breezes arrive in February, the middle of February has a natural link with the mating process.
Today, the greeting card industry, restaurants, credit card companies, jewellers and, above all, florists [my particular bete noir], are the “patron saints” of our secular Valentine’s Day celebrations. Check out the British newspapers on February 14th for some of the craziest Valentines that you will ever read [see title above]. Is there a cultural difference between the British and the American approach to Valentine’s Day? Or do Americans let it all hang out as well?
A prize to the best “Valentine” written on our Valentine’s Day notice board in the entry hall. Entries will close by 5pm on THURSDAY February 14th. Staff will be the judges! .