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
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
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
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.