During the first six months of our newsletter I'd pretty much concentrated on the Origins of various holidays. For our January / February '87 column I examined Valentine's Day in brief. Again, space limitations prevented more than the most cursory of looks at the Day.

In 1991 I therefore returned to Valentine's Day to expand upon it.

Now that we were online, I grabbed both previous columns, threw them together, and added even more to produce what will have to suffice for a while as the quintessential Book Again Valentine's Day column.

Ancient Customs of February


If we could but glance backward through the mists of time, and fix our gaze upon the ancient Roman Empire some pagan February 2nd, we would observe, as the sun waned and darkness fell, a vast procession of people marching down the city streets, all carrying candles. This was an ancient Roman Festival of Purification, which they called the "Festival of Febru". Guess where this month's name comes from?

Some time during the fifth century, of course, the newly established Roman Catholic Church began to systematically usurp all the ancient pagan festivals. Saturnalia became Christmas, the Celtic Samhain (their New Year) became All Hallow's Day (thus turning the Celtic New Year's Eve into All Hallow's Eve, or Halloween), and so on.

The Church was, however, wise enough to simply change the names of the days, while still allowing a reasonable proximity of the accustomed celebrations to remain. So it was that Samhain, traditionally a time to placate the Dead who Walked, was now a time to remember and honor Saints and souls Gone Before. Similarly, the tradition of Saturnalia gift giving was allowed to continue for Christmas.
In that spirit, the Febru Festival was renamed Candlemas Day.

Hmmm, I could swear there was another Roman Festival around this time of year . . . now what was it?

Ah, yes - who could forget Lupercalia Eve: the Festival of Youth! It was a sort of Roman version of May Day, although in Roman fashion slightly more organized than the sort of amorous free for all the Celts tended to indulge in.

As with May Day, Lupercalia Eve was the time for young people to choose sweethearts - but with a twist. One did not so much choose one's sweetheart - it seems they were all paired off in a lottery! Supposedly this left one's fate in the hands of the gods, who presumably would be able to pair people off more wisely than if the young people were left to their own mortal devices.

As with Saturnalia and so many other Roman holidays, the old beliefs of this festival survived the coming of the Church, and so the concept of finding one's mate through supernatural means remained associated with Lupercalia, and as the centuries passed many customs and superstitions about this day permeated Europe. Silly Europeans - imagine celebrating such things simply because a bunch of Romans - -

Oh, I forgot - the Church changed the name of this one, too. Being as there wasn't much of a Holy nature in this youthful festival of romance, they simply checked their records and found an old Saint who had been martyred once on that date. His name, as you probably have guessed, was Saint Valentine.

Nowadays, of course, we do indeed still celebrate the day, though in the main it seems to have become an occasion for already paired couples to have dinner, exchange cards, and keep flower shops solvent. Pity, because the point of the day as it evolved over the last couple of millennia was much more to determine through supernatural means one's future mate. Much more interesting, don't you think?

In point of fact, such divinations were still common in this country at the turn of the century, and I'm fairly certain some trace of the old rituals endure somewhere.

Such rituals included the practice by young girls of going to bed the night before Valentine's Day with bay leaves under their pillows. This would, naturally, cause them to see their future husbands in their dreams.

There is also a custom apparently still prevalent in Great Britain that the first unmarried member of the opposite sex one sees on Valentine's Day is one's future mate - one's "Valentine", if you will. As you might imagine, such a belief could lead to trouble, depending as it does on the Roman Lottery-like problem of leaving the choice completely to chance. Therefore, an antidote superstition developed. If you didn't care for the person you first saw, you could cancel the spell by simply remaining indoors until Noon.

Another Lottery-like ritual should be performed on St Valentine's Eve. It is a game where a group of men or women would have before them a number of cards, each bearing the name of a currently eligible member of the opposite sex (although I suppose these days one could modify the rules somewhat, depending on one's predilections). Each player in turn would be blindfolded, and pick a name. This would be repeated three times, and if you drew the same name all three times you had chosen you future mate.

And if any of you have any unbroken wishbones lying about, bear in mind that they are also known as "Marriage Bones," and that whoever gets the long end will be the first to wed.