A Bit of Valentine Folklore

by Seasonal Wisdom on February 12, 2009

“Oft have I heard both youths and virgins say
Birds choose their mates, and couple too, today.”
Robert Herrick, 1648

As another Valentine’s Day approaches, how much do you know about this day of love?

Personally, I didn’t know much until I pulled out my old folklore books. So, if you’ve ever wondered how the year’s most romantic day got started, then grab a cup of tea and keep reading. Here are some facts you might not have known about Valentine’s Day.

Birds Not Saints: First off, history tells us those two obscure Saint Valentines from the fourth century — who may have actually been the same person — didn’t have much to do with bringing the love connotations to Valentine’s Day. For the romantic aspects, you need to look to the birds.

As far back as the fourteenth century, Geoffrey Chaucer and other celebrated English and French writers believed that birds chose their mates on the feast of their patron Saint Valentine.

By Feb. 14, birds do start to reappear and repair their nests in some climates. So, the promise of spring renewal and fertility can be felt in the air around this time.  Plus, we’ve all heard the expression “the birds and the bees,” although I don’t see any mention of bees in this particular story.

Picking Valentines: In earlier times, Valentines were sometimes selected the night before. A group of young women and men would meet and write slips of paper with names on them. The slip you picked was your Valentine the next day … and no cheating allowed.

On Valentine’s Eve, it was also the custom to write names of prospective lovers on slips of paper. These were rolled into clay balls and dropped into a bowl of water. The first to rise to the top was your future Valentine.

“It is customary, alike for married as for unmarried people, that the first person one meets in the morning …becomes one’s Valentine.”
Dutch visitor to London in 1663

There’s also the centuries-old tradition that the first person of the opposite sex you see on Valentine’s Day must become your Valentine. Not surprisingly, some would go blindfolded to the house of their desired sweetheart, so they didn’t see the wrong person. Be sure to keep your eyes closed until the right one comes along too.

Valentine’s Cards: The habit of sending romantic cards on Valentine’s Day in the British Isles seems to have started in the mid-eighteenth century. The oldest known Valentine is in the Hull Museum and dates to 1750, writes historian Ronald Hutton.
In this post, the vintage Valentine’s Day cards all came from RiptheSkull on Flickr. As I’ve mentioned before, she has a wonderful selection of old images. Go check them out if you haven’t already, and tell her I sent you.
Want to learn more about Valentine’s Day? Drop by Nest in Style podcast for part two of our report on the “Gardening World and Social Media.” In this episode, we talk with Steve Aitken, editor of Fine Gardening Magazine; plus, Joe Lamp’l and Theresa Loe of the upcoming PBS show Growing a Greener World.
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