Here’s the irony about Valentine’s Day, should you be looking for one. With the exception of Christmas, it’s the annual tradition we tend to associate with the worst excesses of modern commercialism, and yet it’s one of the oldest that we can actually trace back through historical documents. While it may be cringe-y cards and tawdry tat in the 21st century, its origins appear to be pure, and very much based in nature. Perhaps it’s worth looking at again, through less cynical eyes. Step away from the chocolates, sweet human, and read on.
In this article, you’ll find…
- What is Valentine’s Day?
- How did Valentine’s Day start and where does it come from?
- Which traditional Valentine’s customs have we forgotten?
- Why is Valentine’s Day celebrated?
- What not to write in a Valentine’s Day card
- Are there any traditional folk songs about Valentine’s Day?
What is Valentine’s Day?
Valentine’s Day is an annual custom, celebrated on February 14th, in which lovers (or intended lovers) exchange cards and gifts as a way of showing their affections. In modern times, it has become a hugely commercial venture.
Want some stats? Of course you do. According to Globaldata.com, the most romantic day of the year was expected to be worth around £1 billion in 2020 (it probably didn’t get there due to the encroaching pandemic – not exactly an aphrodisiac). Finder.com points out that If you were in London, you’re likely to have spent between £40 and £50 on your partner (or perhaps yourself – self-love is a big thing these days, after all).
And since we’ve gone down this route, Northern Ireland is the romantic area (73% planned to celebrate Valentine’s Day last year), while the East Midlands is largely a romance-free zone (only 34% were up for it). So it’s Belfast rather than Leicester if you’re in the mood for love.
How did Valentine’s Day start and where does it come from?
It’s Roman, right?
Wrong, apparently. It’s often assumed that Valentine’s Day has Roman origins, but the Venerable Roud suggests that this is a red herring. In his book, The English Year, he points out that there were several St Valentines, and none of them were associated with romance. Two were better documented – a bishop from Terni and a Roman priest – but we still know almost nothing about them, other than that they were both beheaded (be still, my beating heart) and that at some point they were assigned saint days traditionally thought to be near the beginning of Spring. At a later date, someone may have tied those days to the notion of blossoming love, but all this is pure conjecture.
Roud also notes that Valentine’s Day is often wrongly linked to the Roman festival of Lupercalia, and that this mistake can be attributed to the Reverend Alban Butler who, in 1756, published a book called Lives of the Saints, making the tenuous suggestion. Lupercalia was actually a festival of purification. Any attempt to see a link between that and the purity of love is wishful thinking.
What does it have to do with Geoffrey Chaucer?
I’m so glad you asked. The answer, it would seem, is almost everything. Back in the late 1370s, Chaucer wrote a 700-line poem called Parlement of the Foules. A mere snip of a thing by Chaucer’s standards (Troilus and Criseyde had 8,239 lines, so be thankful nobody’s reciting that at your local singaround) it spoke of St Valentine’s Day as an avian day of romance – the day that birds got together. Several of his poet friends wrote similar things around the same time, and, according to Steve Roud, it seems they were, “working within an existing tradition that held Valentine’s Day to be the first day of spring”.
Roud goes on to point out that Chaucer and friends may not have linked any of this to human romance. They were quite literally thinking about birds. However, by the 1440s the penny seems to have dropped. John Lydgate wrote a poem titled A Valentine to her that Excelleth All (not a bad line, it must be said), and foresaw the work of a million greeting cards writers.
Which traditional Valentine’s customs have we forgotten?
The Valentine’s Game
You’ve heard of arranged marriages, you’ve heard of marriages of convenience, and you’ve heard of genuine love matches. How about coupling as a form of party game? Of course you have, but no, this is not a reference to swinging, although you can see how it might easily be adapted using a bowl full of car keys and a blindfold.
The diarist, Samuel Pepys, frequently noted this custom (24 times, according to Roud, between 1660 and 1669), mainly because it cost him deep in the purse. Names were written on pieces of paper, selected at random, and those that were matched up were expected to, “play at being lovers”. Rather like a 17th century game of Spin the Bottle, only instead of going for a snog in a cupboard, the women were expected to pay the men compliments for several days afterwards, while the men were expected to buy the women presents. Hence Pepys’s miserly mithering (although it should be noted, he was known to use this Valentine’s custom as a way of initiating extramarital affairs, so maybe he was playing about with car keys after all).
Again, we know about this Valentine’s Day version of finders keepers from Pepys’s diaries, although it comes via his wife, Elizabeth. Tradition stated that the first eligible person you saw on February 14th was yours for keeps. You can see how that might’ve been problematic, can’t you? Pretty sure it wouldn’t stand up in a court of law. However, Elizabeth Pepys was so concerned about what it might mean in 1662 that she kept her eyes covered for the entire morning, as they had the workmen in. Close shave, Liz Pepys.
In rural areas, valentining involved going from door to door, asking for goodies. Not dissimilar to one form of wassailing, then, only this event tended to involve children – sometimes hordes of them – arriving at your door, wishing you “Good morrow, Valentine!”, and then demanding food.
According to Roud’s research, Parson James Woodforde of Weston Longeville, Norfolk, gave a penny to every child under 14 who said, “Good morrow, Valentine!” to him on February 14th, between 1777 and 1802. All of which sounds a little desperate, if not a little sinister, and certainly very expensive. We can only hope that they saw him coming.
Another form of valentining, which clearly pre-dates one of our card-giving rituals, involved leaving anonymous gifts on the doorstep of the person you fancied, hoping that they’d guess it came from you. Thankfully, the part that we’ve managed to do away with over time involved leaving empty boxes, or boxes full of something unwanted, for those that you’d prefer to ward off.
As you might expect, rural customs and rituals involved the agricultural materials to hand. At midnight on the 14th, unmarried women would throw hemp seeds over their shoulders, hoping that they might see the form or figure of their future lovers trailing behind them (shudder). Steve Roud notes that a typical ritual in the mid-1800s involved sprinkling bay leaves with rose water, wearing a clean nightgown inside out, and reciting the words: “Good Valentine, be kind to me / In dreams let me my true love see”. Needless to say, future partners would then arrive in your dreams and all would be well.
Why is Valentine’s Day still celebrated?
Quite why this particular custom has lived on is anyone’s guess. In fact, it very nearly died out (as you’ll see in the following section). The cynic might suggest that it’s precisely because of all the money thrown into advertising and manufacturing that it keeps going. If everyone were to stop with the buying and start up with the car keys game again, well… smiles all round, presumably?
What not to write in a Valentine’s Day card
Valentine’s Day cards became commercially available in the early 19th century and initially included a printed poem or message, largely for those who were unable to write their own. By the middle of the century, however, they had fallen out of popularity in the UK, although not in the USA. Such was the disdain in which people held the giving of cards, a new tradition briefly found its footing: Vinegar Valentines. These were a kind of parody, in which the card was intended to insult someone, often on account of their vanity. Examples include…
I’m not attracted by your glitter
For well I know how very bitter
My life would be, if I should take
You for my spouse, a rattlesnake.
Oh no, I’d not accept the ring,
Or evermore ‘t’would prove a sting.
The Simpering Miss (circa 1900)
The smile that on your face appears,
Stretching your mouth to meet your ears,
You think, no doubt, as sweet as honey,
Whereas, dear girl, it’s only funny.
Indeed, Valentine’s Day seems to have come pretty close to dying a death on this side of the Atlantic, only seeing a resurgence after the second world war, as Steve Roud writes, “under heavy influence from the USA and the watchful eye of the commercial card makers.”
Are there any traditional folk songs for Valentine’s Day?
Broadside Ballads Online (collecting ballads from the Bodleian Libraries) lists nine songs that deal with “Valentine“, while the Vaughan Williams Memorial library lists 308 entries to do with “valentine”, and 177 that specifically deal with “Valentine’s Day”.
Here are a handful of traditional (or semi-traditional) Valentine’s songs that you can hear modern recordings of on Youtube.
A Welsh song originating from Ceredigion, performed here by Julie Murphy and Dylan Fowler, the words of which were written by the poet, Daniel Ddu (1792-1846). Interestingly, it also takes the mating of birds as part of its subject matter.
As performed by Jim Moray on his 2008 album, Low Culture. The tune is a traditional Morris tune from Ascot-Under-Wychwood, while the lyrics were written by a Bristol Morris man, Adrian Shaw. Here’s a video of Bristol Morris dancing ‘Valentine’.
Last Valentine’s Day / Black Sloven / Black Clover
This small family of songs resides under Roud Number 6475. Collected in Sussex by Lucy Broadwood, it goes by either the first words of the song (not unusual in traditional folk songs), or by variations on the name of the horse. The version below is from The Teacups’ 2020 album, In Which…, where it takes the title, ‘The Valentine’s Day Hunt’.
The frolicksome action in ‘Dame Durden’ [Roud 1209] takes place, “On the morn of Valentine, when birds began to prate” – an unusually unromantic word, given that it means to bore (to prattle on), perhaps used here to suggest that there were far more exciting things to be doing than listening to wildlife. All that this song is missing, really, is a bowl full of car keys.
In researching this article, I turned to Twitter to find out if anyone knew of any Valentine’s Day folk songs I hadn’t come across. Plenty responded, but particular thanks go to Helen Lindley for her many contributions, Bryony Griffith, Andy Turner, Matt Milton, Gavin Atkin, Rob Harbron, and Owen Shiers. Clicking on their names will take you to their suggestions.