12 Feb 2024

Be My Valentine

Valentine’s Day has a long history. Its origins have been traced back to the Roman celebration of Lupercalia on 15 February, a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture and to the mythical founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus.

This pagan rite was outlawed by early Christians by the end of the 5th century, when the pope declared 14 February St Valentine’s Day, named after a 3rd-century Roman priest who had apparently been arrested for giving aid to prisoners, fell in love with his jailer’s daughter and was subsequently martyred.

St Valentine’s Day became associated with traditions of courtly love in the Middle Ages; the first recorded ‘Valentine’ was a poem written by Charles, Duke of Orleans, after his capture at the Battle of Agincourt. It was a popular belief that 14 February was the beginning of the birds’ mating season, reinforcing the connection of this day with ideas of romance. Geoffrey Chaucer celebrated this romantic tradition in his 1375 poem The Parliament of Fowles:

For this was Seynt on Valentine’s Day
When every foul cometh there to choose his mate.”

For centuries, the tradition was marked by the sending of handwritten notes and poems, but it was not until the early 19th century, when paper became more affordable and new printing techniques were developed, that the Valentine’s card became a phenomenon.

A decisive event in the history of Valentine’s Day was the introduction of the Penny Post on 10 January 1840. Posting mass-produced cards was now affordable and within a year, 400,000 Valentines were posted; in 1871 1.2 million Valentines were processed by the General Post Office in London. Valentines, generally sent anonymously, were a permissible way for people to express their emotions at a time when direct expressions of feeling were strictly discouraged.

Many lovers eschewed mass-produced cards and chose to make their own, using lace, ribbon, silk flowers and gold and silver appliqué. Apart from flowers (an entire ‘language’, which every Victorian would have understood), Victorian Valentines often feature churches and church spires, symbolising fidelity and honourable intentions.

The fact that these cards were sent anonymously unleashed a more sinister tendency. So called ‘vinegar Valentines’ were poisonous notes, often with appropriately grotesque illustrations, which defamed rivals, or unleashed criticism and insults at their targets.

Sending cards is not the only custom associated with Valentine’s Day. It is traditional to give flowers on 14th February, in particular red roses.  Blood red has long symbolised love and passion. In Roman mythology Venus, the goddess of love, gave a red rose to Adonis, the god of love.

Chocolate owes its roots to Aztec Mexico, where it was believed to be an aphrodisiac, and chocolates are a popular Valentine’s Day gift. In the mid-19th century Cadbury’s created a heart-shaped box of chocolates, but did not patent this original idea, which was soon widely adopted.

Valentine's Day Etiquette

Valentine’s Day is an opportunity for the romantically inclined to celebrate love and relationships. It is wise to be relaxed about the whole thing but take your cue from your beloved. Be wary of those who noisily deride Valentine’s Day, only to be furious when they find themselves present-less and card-less come the big day.

For the unattached, anonymous cards have their own pitfalls: you run the risk of being seen as either too feeble to come forward in person or, worse, as a stalker. Unless you are an incurable romantic – and a patient one at that – there is no need to wait for Valentine’s Day to reveal your feelings for someone.

 If you are in the business of gift-giving, either be prepared to spend serious cash on beautiful flowers or opt for something more imaginative. A thoughtless offering is worse than nothing at all.

Some venues insist on offering themed menus, but unless your Valentine’s Day date expects it, restaurants are generally best avoided – the pressure can be stifling and the manufactured romance can feel somewhat tawdry.

Consider organising a cosy dinner for two at home. You can decorate the table with beautiful flowers and create a seductive ambience with well-dimmed lamps or candles. You do not have to create a complex meal; simply focus on a signature dish that you are confident you can concoct with a minimum of anxiety, and focus instead on plenty of treats – nuts and figs, chocolates and fine wine.

Whether you’re eating in a restaurant or at home, beware foods that are difficult to eat. Most people don’t look very seductive when they’re trying to manage a plate of slippery spaghetti or dissecting a bony fish. Don’t serve food that requires concentration; your focus should be on each other, not your plate.

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