Valentine's Day Traditions, Yesterday and Today
A medieval European belief held that on February 14 the birds started to couple off. The custom of writing to one another on this occasion recalls the famous letter from the priest Valentine (the “lovers’ priest”) on the day of his death.
Today, more than a million cards are exchanged on this occasion.
For several decades up until now, lovers have sent more and more elaborate cards. They are illustrated with symbolic red hearts or with Cupid with his bow and arrows. Some are very sophisticated, decorated with ribbons of paper, feathers, lace, and bows; they can even be scented. The messages written inside are more or less poetic and vow eternal love.
During the Middle Ages, Valentine’s Day was one of the most popular celebrations of the year in Europe. Even when he was imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1415, Charles, the Duke of Orléans, sent his wife a card for Valentine’s Day, thus perpetuating the romantic mythology.
Cards signed with small X’s to signify 1,000 kisses recall a tradition that harkens back to the start of Catholicism: the cross symbolized faith. When one would sign with a cross, it was supposed to kiss the cross… this is how, from the cross, we got kisses!
All over Europe on Valentine’s Day, enthusiastic lovers come up with diverse plans and strategies to express their attachement to their chosen one. In Wales, wooden spoons were fashioned in the form of a key and heart, showing their recipients how they could liberate the heart of the amorous sender.
To declare their passion, lovers (after having chosen their Valentines), would write the names of their chosen ones on a ball, which they would attach to their sleeves. The men would offer the clothing to their chosen ones; as soon as the woman accepted it, their engagement would be sealed.
In the Middle Ages, it was the young girls who would leave it to chance or luck to find their Valentines. Birds were the messengers of spring and love. If the young girl saw a robin, she would marry a sailor. For a sparrow, she would have a happy marriage with a man of little fortune. For a goldfinch, she would marry a rich man.
On February 14, when the woman had set her sights on a man, she would drop her lace handkerchief (lace comes from the Latin laqueare, “to catch”). This lace handkerchief served to catch the heart of the woman’s true love.
One last bit of advice for finding your soul mate: the first name heard or read in the newspaper on Valentine’s Day is an omen of a romantic encounter with someone of the same name during that year.