St Valentine’s Day is round the corner: but who was this saint, how is he celebrated – and what advice does the Church have for 21st century couples?
Of all the feast days in the Christian calendar, few are as widely celebrated as that of St Valentine: and yet the irony is that the life of the man himself is shrouded in mystery.
All we know for sure about St Valentine is that he lived in the third century, in or near Rome; and he was probably a martyr. But quite why he emerged as the patron saint of people in love is unclear. One story has it that he healed the daughter of his jailor, who was deaf and blind, and left a note to her on the day of his execution that was signed ‘Your Valentine’. Another is that, at a time when Christian worship was outlawed, he offered religious ceremonies to couples wishing to marry. But whatever the reason for it, his charism emerged more strongly than almost any other saint: people of all faiths and none, the world over, celebrate Valentine’s Day and indeed Pope Francis, in his document Amoris Laetitia, writes that commercial interests have been quicker than many in the Church to see the potential of the celebration of his feast day.
It’s certainly clear, with card shops groaning with Valentine’s day cards and gifts, and the annual February spike in the price of roses, that there’s money to be made out of this particular saint and his feast day.
But across the world, there are also customs that are less about spending money and more about focusing on the fun, the joy, and the life-affirming potential of love. Take Denmark and Norway, for example, where men send women ‘gaekkebrev’ or short poems and rhymes anonymously to serenade their love. Their poems are unsigned, but as a clue to the identity of the sender there’s a line of dots, one to represent each letter of the sender’s name. And rather than roses, in Denmark snowdrops are the flowers of romance – and they’re as likely to be presented pressed as fresh.
In Italy, folklore has it that the first man a young unmarried woman sees will become her husband – or if not him, there’s a wonderful get-out clause that it will be someone who is just like him! In the past, Italian girls would wake before dawn on Valentine’s Day – and sometimes events were engineered so that their ‘true love’ was the first person they set eyes on.
In South Africa, women literally used to wear their hearts on their sleeves on Valentine’s Day. The custom was to pin the name of their love interest to their shirt sleeves – which is nothing if not upfront. France, meanwhile, had a more raucous custom, its ‘loterie d’amour’ or ‘drawing for love’. Single men and women filled houses facing one another, and took turns in calling out names and, if the called party responded, pairing up. Unmatched women later had a bonfire and burned pictures of the men who had spurned their advances; what the unmatched men did after the event is not recorded. However, the tradition was often accompanied by noise and trouble, and eventually it was banned by the government.
More sedate is the festival that takes place each February in the village of St Valentin in the central Val de Loire region of France. Dubbed ‘the village of love’, the festival began more than 50 years ago and sees the village decked out with colourful flowers. Lovers flock there to pin amorous notes to the Tree of Vows, and to plant trees which, it is said, will flourish as long as the relationship blossoms.
Closer to home, there are some very special Valentine’s Day customs in the UK. Wales has its very own patron saint of lovers, St Dwynwen, whose feast day is a few weeks ahead of that of St Valentine, on 25 January. Dwynwen is believed to have lived in the 5th century, and her story surrounds a love affair with a man called Maelon who for some reason (accounts differ) she was unable to marry. Dwynwen prayed for release from her feelings for Maelon, and an angel appeared to him with a potion – he drank and was turned to ice. This wasn’t the result she intended, so Dwynwen then prayed for three intentions: firstly, that Maelon should be released from his ice prison; secondly, that she should spend her life unmarried, and thirdly that God should look after all true lovers. She lived out the rest of her life in retreat on the island of Angelsey.
The traditional tokens of affection in Wales, given as gifts on St Dwynwen’s Day, are love spoons, often intricately carved with symbols like keys, which represent the giver’s heart. The earliest spoons date back to the 17th century; as well as symbolising the feelings of the giver, they were intended to demonstrate to her family, via the quality of the carving, that he was a young man capable of working hard and providing for a wife and children.
In England, meanwhile, one of the most poignant customs dates from the 18th century when unmarried women would go to bed the night before Valentine’s Day with bay leaves on their pillows; it was believed they would then dream of their future husband.