St Valentine’s Day has lots of associations with France. It’s thought that the idea of sending Valentine’s cards started with the Duke of Orleans in the fifteenth century. He was captured during the Battle of Agincourt and taken to the Tour of London. He sent love letters and poems to his young wife. But even before him, French lovers had started celebrating around the middle of February, the time when birds began to pair off and build their nests.
But didn’t the whole thing start off with St Valentine? Actually, there are at least three St Valentines. Pope Gelasius 1 made the day official in AD 496 to honour Valentine of Rome and Valentine of Terni. They were both martyred horribly but not much more is known about them. A third Valentine crops up too, Valentine of Africa, referred to in various martyrologies (boy, those must be depressing to read). So there’s a lot of confusion as to who we should be commemorating on that day and what for. And an ancient Roman fertility ritual may have a bearing too. That happened on 15th February. It sounds rather fun. Priests sacrificed a goat (OK, it wasn’t fun for the goat), drank a lot of wine and removed at least half of their clothing and then ran though the streets holding bits of the poor goat’s skin. Young women were keen to be touched by this skin as it meant they’d be fertile and have easy labours. In a time before maternity hospitals, painkillers and antibiotics, you can see why they’d be prepared to be smacked with a bit of dead goat if that was the benefit.
However, we forget the martyrdoms and sacrifices and dwell on the fun stuff these days – the giving of flowers, presents and cards to our special someones. Valentines cards are called cartes d’amitiés here. The usual gifts to give on Valentine’s Day are flowers and chocolates, as in many other countries. Cadeaux personalisés ordered over the internet are becoming popular too. So although the whole thing began with a French connection, it isn’t anything particularly French about it any more. But that doesn’t make it any the less enjoyable. Happy St Valentine’s Day – Joyeuse Fête de la St Valentin.