Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day has its roots in the rites of the Roman mother goddess Juno and the Lupercalia festival. The Lupercalia celebration featured a lottery in which young men would draw the names of young girls from a box. What happened afterwards varied from place to place; in some areas a girl was assigned to each young man and would be his sweetheart during the remaining year. In others it was the single women who drew the lot with the single man’s name on it. In an attempt to stamp out Lupercalia rites, the Church replaced them with the feast of St Valentine. Under the Church, instead of drawing out lovers’ names from the box as at the Lupercalia, young people could draw out saints’ names and sermons. They were then expected to meditate on their saints and emulate their qualities during the year. However (not surprisingly) this didn’t prove very popular. The practice of sending love letters on Valentine’s Day appeared in France and England in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

St Valentine is an amalgamated figure with several conflicting and confused biographies. There are two main contenders for the role who both supposedly lived in third century Rome. The first was a bishop from Terni, a province in Umbria, who was said to be captured by the Romans while attempting to free his fellow Christians from prison. During his trial, he refused to acknowledge the dominance of the Pagan gods and was thrown into a dungeon. There he fell in love with the jailer’s daughter and cured her blindness.  On the morning of his execution on February 14 he sent her a message signed “from your Valentine”, a detail obviously tacked onto the story to explain Valentine’s strange association with lovers. The second candidate lived under the rule of Claudius II, known as Claudius the Goth, who found that married men were loath to leave their families to fight in his wars, so forbade matrimony for soldiers. A Christian priest named Valentine performed secret weddings for them and so earned himself the title ‘friend of lovers’. He was captured and died in prison on February 14 in 269 CE. The legends of the two Valentines seem to have been deliberately confused by the Church to make one saint. During the reformations of the 1960s, the Roman Catholic Church, embarrassed by the nebulous nature of the saint and finding no evidence of his existence, dropped St Valentine’s Day from the official calendar.

The custom of choosing a lover on this day may relate to the commonly held European belief that birds select their mates for the year on 14 February. Chaucer, in Parlement of Foules wrote “For this was Seynt Valentine’s Day when every foul cometh ther to choose his mate“. In February, activity amongst birds increases, and they begin to nest this month.  Perhaps stemming from this belief, a later superstition was that the type of bird a woman first saw on this day was an omen of the type of man she would marry:

Blackbird- clergyman

Bluebird- a happy man

Crossbill- argumentative man

Dove- good hearted man

Goldfinch- rich man

Hawk- soldier or brave man

Owl- a man who would not live long

Sparrow- farmer

Woodpecker- the girl would remain single

Naturally, Valentine’s Eve and Valentine’s Day lend themselves to love divinations. One old method is to take five bay leaves washed in rosewater, and pin them on your pillow on Valentine’s Eve, one in each corner and one in the middle, then dress in a clean nightgown turned inside out and whisper “Good Valentine, be kind to me/ In dreams let me my true love see.”[1] Or you could try a method used by English girls a couple of centuries ago, and  write the names of prospective lovers on slips of paper, roll them in balls of clay, and drop them in a bowl of water. The first to rise to the surface will be your valentine. [2]

© Anna Franklin, The Hearth Witch’s Year, Llewellyn, 2021

[1] George Long, The Folklore Calendar, Phillip Allan, London, 1930

[2] George Long, The Folklore Calendar, Phillip Allan, London, 1930


Author: annafranklinblog

Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles, a working coven, and the annual Mercian Gathering, a Pagan camp which raises money for charity. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops around the country. She is the author of many books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Pagan Ways Tarot, Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Herb Craft, Magical Incenses and Oils, Personal Power, A Romantic Guide to Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, The Path of the Shaman and The Hearth Witch’s Compendium. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.

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