Bits and Jigsaw Pieces

St Valentine’s Day. A puzzle and a slap on the bum…

So here we all are, in the dull dark days of January, looking for something to perk us up, something to make us smile.

My friends, may I suggest we look no further than next month, to February 14th when we can declare our undying love for each other and celebrate St Valentine’s Day together?

Now, when I mention Valentine’s Day, what are the first things that spring to mind?

Lovey-dovey cards and messages? Certainly. Red roses? Frequently. Chocolates? Indulgently.

But it wasn’t always this way, with declarations of love determined by whoever can buy the biggest card, the fluffiest teddy bear toy, or the most magnificent floral bouquet in order to impress their dearest love…

Let’s travel back in time, you and I, and see if we can find out how this whole Valentine’s thing got started…

Welcome to Lupercalia

No, this is not a yet-to-be-discovered holiday resort on the Black Sea; we have travelled back around 2,000 years to ancient Rome and the pagan, rumbustious, outrageous and downright decadent festival of Lupercalia, held over three days in what we now call the month of February.

The Romans called it Mensis Februarius, from the word februum, meaning purification. Februarius was, therefore, the time of purification - and it was also the time when thoughts turned to fertility, in readiness for the coming of Spring.

That’s where Lupercalia came in – and, depending on who you were, it sounds like it could be anything between huge fun and a massive pain in the bum!

Februarius XIV

Let me explain: on the morning of Februarius XIV (14th to us), the male folk of ancient Rome would rise and make their ablutions. Immediately after breakfast, the more well-off amongst them would sacrifice a goat (with the poorer folks making do by sacrificing a dog).

Then, the younger men and boys would strip naked, cut long strips from the sacrificed animals’ hides and spend the rest of the day running around the streets of Rome, enthusiastically whipping the bottoms of passing young ladies, a practice considered most important to ensure fertility in these very lucky young women!

Oh lucky and lucky again the Roman shopkeeper selling salve for bruised bottoms on this glorious day! (I wonder did he have a brilliant Roman PR guru? If so, selling this whole bottom-whacking concept rates as advertising genius...)

Here come the Christians

These naked and spanking shenanigans went on for a few hundred years until the Christians rocked up (not the 80s pop sensations – the other lot).

As often happened when the Christians appropriated a pagan festival, they lost no time in taking most of the fun out of it - in this case, the naked and the spanking bits!

So far, so much ancient history – but where, I hear you ask, does the whole St Valentine bit come in?

We all know that, for a long time, Romans and Christians didn’t get on very well. The martyrdom business was in full swing around the time of the Emperor Claw Claw Claudius – or Derek Jacobi as some of us know him (you’ll need to be of a certain age to pick up on that).

More than 30 St Valentines – so take your pick

It seems the Christian saints and martyrs collection includes more than 30 Saint Valentines: yes, 30!

However, researchers (thank heaven for researchers!) reckon they have narrowed our St Valentine to one of just two, both of whom were executed by said Emperor Claudius on or around February 14th.

Both were apparent miracle workers – something that didn’t go down well in senior Roman circles at the time – and both were of the clergy (one a simple priest; the other a bishop). No-one can be absolutely certain which Valentine is really ours; I’ll leave you to choose – high cleric or low cleric.

Who put the Saint in Valentine?

In reality, the ‘Saint’ bit in St Valentine only appeared several hundred years on from the demise of the martyred clerics when, in 496AD, February 14th was declared the saints’ day by Pope Gelasius (great name that, by the way: Gelasius).

The ‘father of English literature’, author Geoffrey Chaucer (oh God; do you remember the Canterbury Tales from school?) takes the credit for making the first popular romantic association for St Valentine’s day.

He only went and wrote a poem celebrating the engagement of King Richard II (a mere lad of 15) to Anne of Bohemia, in which he used the ‘V’ word... Cheers, Geoffrey: bet you didn’t think you’d create a whole greetings card industry in the future, eh?

Always one to pick up and develop a popular theme, the blessed bard himself, Bill from Stratford-upon-Avon, made mention of the special day in Hamlet, with Ophelia lamenting (she did a lot of that lamenting stuff, before going mad and drowning): ‘Tomorrow is St Valentine’s day, All in the morning betime, And I a maid at your window, To be your Valentine’

The Penny Post

No one is quite sure how and when the custom of passing anonymous love notes on February 14 really caught on, but it’s commonly considered to have really taken off in the UK with the introduction of the Penny Post (some people have it that the French were already at it decades before us: typical!)

Rowland Hill, the driving force behind the Penny Post, introduced it in January 1840 – just in time for that year’s Valentine’s Day. Neat timing, eh?

Suddenly, ordinary folk could actually afford to send messages beyond their immediate neighbourhood, and they began to do so in their droves.

Naturally, with Britain being a nation of shopkeepers, it wasn’t long before the forerunners to Hallmark Cards and W.H. Smith started supplying ready-made Valentine’s cards: now, in return for (sometimes) ludicrous amounts of cash, the most difficult bit of all - the writing of a heartfelt verse or love poem - was all done for you: result!

All of which brings us bang up to date and neatly back to where we came in: the giving and receiving of cards and small personal gifts on this special day to celebrate love in all its varieties, flavours and flamboyances.

Loving and Giving: being unique

Just before we go, and while we’re still tuned in to this giving and loving lark, it might be worth your while to seek out a different and totally unique gift for your sweet Valentine this year.

Not for you the flowers lifted from a garage forecourt plastic bucket, or the run-of-the-mill box of chocolates snatched from the nearest corner shop.

Oh no: you’ve got far more class than that, so why not send them their very own personalised Valentine’s jigsaw gift from - They’ll love you for it!

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Julie and Michael

Michael O'SullivanEditor