Tap ‘Valentine’s Day’ into an online search engine that rhymes with, let’s say ‘Mickey-media’ and the following sentence appears: ‘It is celebrated in many countries around the world, although it remains a working day in most of them.’ How very wrong you can be. Trying to downplay February’s annual love-fest as a casual ‘working day’ is like referring to the Pacific as ‘that puddle round the back’.
Whether 14 February leaves you gooey-eyed with l’amour, or sparks an urge to lead protest renditions of ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ in the ‘seasonal’ aisle of your local Sainsbury’s, there’s no escaping Cupid for the next week or so. But what the beating heart is it all about?
When did it start?
Valentine’s Day has familiar roots in the family of ‘festivals that once meant something but nowadays are largely commercially-inspired calendar events we just get suckered into throwing money at’. As with Halloween, murky tales of martyred Christians and Roman fertility rites abound. Lupercalia, an ancient fertility festival renowned for naked gallivanting, fell between 13 and 15 February in the days of ancient Rome. Young bucks ‘purified’ the city by stripping off and donning the skins of recently slaughtered livestock before heading out to harrass hordes of female passers by in the name of increasing fertility. Not much different from happy hour in Slough on a Friday night then.
WHO WAS VALENTINE?
Legend has it that Valentinus, about whom little is known, was a priest who was imprisoned by the Romans for illegally officiating at the marriages of Christian couples. The night before his execution, Valentinus is said to have sent a card to the daughter of his jailor whose blindness he happened to have cured, signing off with ‘from your Valentine’. There is nothing especially romantic about any of this, and the only obvious connection to the feast day of St Valentine is that he was martyred on 14 February.
SO HOW DID IT BECOME A TRADITION?
Valentine’s Day and fully-fledged romance first jumped into bed together – on record, at least – in 1382, courtesy of Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem ‘Parlement of Foules’. Written to celebrate the engagement of King Richard II to Anne of Bohemia in poetic form, one can only assume its title reveals Chaucer’s personal take on those considering matrimony.
By 1797, expressing undying affection on Valentine’s Day had taken off to such a loved-up extent that a useful handbook known as The Young Man’s Valentine Writer was published. It might almost be described as an early example of a Bluffer’s Guide. Inside, struggling Casanovas could find a litany of suggested inscriptions to pass off as their own, lovingly referred to as ‘mechanical valentines’. Fifty years later, the equally romantic Esther Howland of Worcester, Massachusetts, had her own Valentine’s vision:
1 Make lace out of paper;
2 Stick it on cards,
3 Sell ‘em like hot cakes the world over.
Cheap, mass-produced and as personal as a set menu – Valentine’s Day as we know it was born.
WHAT’S THE PERFECT VALENTINE’S GIFT?
Nowadays, Brits spend a collective average £1.3 billion a year on Valentine’s gifts. That’s enough to buy every adult in Britain a pint of Strongbow. But what should the discerning bluffer really be buying for their beloved this year?
Flowers are a no-brainer for the big day. Stick with roses if you’re feeling flush – can’t go wrong with love goddess Venus’s own bloom of choice – or a handy bunch of her favorites. You know, the ones she’s always liked. (If you don’t know what these are, spend above expectations to avoid spending the day alone next year.) A cautionary word of advice: never buy a single rose, or any sort of rose, from a filling station forecourt. She’ll smell the diesel a mile away.
When it comes to chocolates – take particular care. Remember that there’s a big difference between a sumptuously wrapped box of lovingly-crafted hand-sculpted Belgian truffles, and the crushed Lion bar bought last minute at Paddington Station.
Above all, under no circumstances should you consider producing chocolate versions of your own face (or worse) using the new 3D printer at work. Partly because you’ll probably break it; partly because FabCafe in Tokyo have beaten you to it; mostly because it’s exceptionally creepy.
Try something bespoke, which not only keeps the cost down but shows that you’ve put some thought into it. Mix tapes, write poems, design collages – anything with an inherent
level of effort always wins valuable Valentine’s brownie points. Keep it small-scale, though – and if you’re not actually together, sending someone an anonymous anthology of poems you’ve written in their honour will not change the situation quickly. And it might look like you’re trying too hard.
It’s worth remembering, lest the full-frontal romance go to your head, that Valentine’s Day is a day like any other on the most basic of levels – no matter how much in love you are, you will still need to eat. Which may explain why couples feel compelled to indulge in the public consumption of foodstuffs on the day itself. Romantic brunches, languid picnics and candlelit suppers are all lovely ideas, in principle. But do bear in mind the following:
- With Valentine’s Day falling on a Thursday this year, brunch will be impossible unless you take the morning off work. Save it for the weekend.
- Picnics are never the happily thrown-together, impromptu affairs Hollywood would have us believe. Plan yours to a military level, or risk an argument about who forgot the bottle opener and kagools. (Have you seen the weather out there?)
- Deal with dinner on V Day carefully. Very, very carefully. Avoid anywhere offering a Valentine’s Special unless you want to be surrounded by other couples sharing the same moment of romantic spontaneity. Opt for a restaurant you both love, and a nice bottle of pink champagne (or two – it’s a celebration, after all.) And don’t sit in the window, you’ll only get cooed at by passing lovebirds.
Here’s some useful advice if you’re thinking of presenting a gift of sex toys, erotic lingerie or eye-watering budgie smugglers. Don’t.
… And The Singles
If you’re currently without a better half, take heart. Let’s be honest – singles have it easier when it comes to Valentine’s. No pressure, no expectations, no hours spent constructing the perfect way to say, ‘I love you… I think.’ If you’re flying solo on the 14th, get a gang of pals together and celebrate that most enduring of truisms: mates before dates.
And just be happy you’re not in South Korea, where love festivals take place on the 14th of both February and March – with those who don’t receive anything expected to celebrate ‘Black Day’ on 14 April by eating black noodles in public to mourn their single life.
MAXIMUM BLUFFING VALUE
Chaps, if you thought you had it tough when it comes to Valentine’s, spare a thought for your Japanese brothers. 14 February traditionally sees only the women of Japan dishing out small gifts of chocolate. A month later, men are expected to return the favour – with gifts worth at least twice the initial offering. Countering with a trinket of roughly the same price as the chocolate is deemed to be cutting off the relationship; hand back nothing, and you’re guilty of a grievous insult to all womankind. You have been warned…
DO SAY ‘Roses are red, violets are blue. There’s nothing I can say that’s as original as you…’
DON’T SAY ‘Would you like this packet of black noodles?’