I have celebrated ST VALENTINE’S DAY all my life – not because I have always had a partner to celebrate it with, far from it -, but because it is my birthday. The coinciding of my birthday with this festival of love is nothing but a nuisance. I can never hope to have a meal out on my birthday, because the restaurants are full of young couples, deeply in love; and if I did manage to find a seat with my wife we would get strange looks as geriatric Valentines; but things have not always been so.
In Norfolk the day was celebrated long ago, but it had nothing to do with romantic love. It was traditionally the day when Jack Valentine called on the young children, banged on the door and left them sweets. The tradition was fading in the first half of the 20th century, but it was carried on by my father, who would leave treats for his two little girls on Valentine’s Day. When I came along on Valentine’s Day, all thought of Jack Valentine was forgotten and it became my special day. Daddy wrote a song cataloguing all the presents that members of the family bought me “All on his second birth-day’. These gifts included a ‘cake with two candles’ and ‘also a crane with two handles’. (To imitate my juvenile attempts at speech they were pronounced ‘cangles’ and ‘hangles’.) Unfortunately at just two years old I was far too young to remember anything of the party, but the crane lasted throughout my young days.
Saint Valentine had nothing to do with love for centuries; he was an early Christian martyr. The nearest he came to romantic love was to perform marriages for Roman soldiers who were not supposed to marry, bur even this was a later tradition that may have no basis in fact. The whole idea of what we now call romance was a late medieval idea. Before then marriage was an entirely legal arrangement for the raising of offspring. It had nothing to do with love and in the original Anglican Prayer Book the main reason for marriage was given as the proper care of children. Royal marriages were devised for dynastic reasons and even for less elevated people the betrothal was normally an arranged one, with the young participants themselves having little say in the matter. The sense of longing and devotion brought in by Courtly Love was an entirely new way of looking at sex, but it has certainly stuck.
The connection of St Valentine with romance is therefore a relatively recent phenomenon. It has spread to many parts of the globe, but it originated in Britain, most probably in England. Hearts and flowers were probably Victorian contributions to the emblems that surround Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s Day cards certainly were, only starting in the late 19th century. Note how all connection with religion has been lost, and Valentine is no longer a saint. This is not a recent thing however, because the old Norfolk tradition had “Jack” rather than ‘Saint’ Valentine delivering gifts.
For those of you who are turned off by the sickly kind romantic love associated with St Valentine, I invite you to consider the St Valentine’s Day massacre. This culmination of a gangland dispute between rival Irish and Italian groups of immigrants in Chicago resulted in the deaths of 8 people. It was in 1929, the era of prohibition.