Thursday, February 14, 2008

Roses are red ... Off with his head

Happy St Valentine's Day. I hope you got plenty of cards and flowers and chocolates. Sadly it wasn't such a happy day for St Valentine himself. His story isn’t a tale of romantic twilight dinners for two, sharing a glass of red wine in front of the fire and nibbling at each other’s gristle.

It’s a tale of woe. Didn’t any Saint ever have a good time?

The Roman Emperor Claudius II was finding it pretty hard to get men to join the military. Which was annoying, as he had a lot of wars that needed fighting. So he set out to find out why this was. And he discovered that plunging recruitment figures were due to men not wanting to leave their loved ones just to die on some godforsaken foreign battlefield on the whim of their bonkers Emperor. No surprises there, really. But Claudius was livid. And so he issued a decree that effectively banned all marriages and engagements. Enter stage left a Christian priest called Valentine. He protested to Claudius the Cruel, as he came to be known, that banning marriage was wrong but was told to keep his nose out of things. So Valentine started to marry couples in secret. Claudius went ballistic when he found out and had Valentine thrown into prison where he remained until his death on February the 14th 270AD.

That’s one story.

A slightly nastier version claims that Valentine helped many Christians to escape from Rome during the persecutions. When he was caught, he was tortured to make him renounce his faith (which he didn’t), clubbed to death, and then rather pointlessly beheaded on February the 14th AD 273.

Or it may be that St Valentine’s Day is a combination of Christian and Pagan beliefs, rather like Christmas and Easter. The festival of Lupercalia was celebrated on February the 15th for centuries before the arrival of Christianity. The festival took place near the Cave of Lupercal on Mount Palatine, one of the seven hills of Rome. Lupercalia was all about celebrating Spring and the return of new life. It was also used as the date for young men and women of marriageable age to take part in a kind of lottery. It was the practice to write the names of young ladies on slips of paper and place them into a kind of lucky dip. When a young chap drew a name from the tombola of love, he would then pin her name to his sleeve for one week. The phrase ‘To wear your heart on your sleeve’ (meaning to be open about your romantic interests) may come from these times. During the Roman occupation of Britain, the idea was brought to the UK and was adopted by the ancient Britons. When Christianity arrived, the Lupercalia was merged with Valentine’s martyrdom to create a new festival on the 14th. Extraordinarily, there is some evidence to suggest that this marriage lottery malarkey only really died out in the 19th century.

The arrival of Spring is often heralded by birds building nests in mid-February. It’s when the first songbirds start waking us up in the morning with their cacophonous trilling. Perhaps this explains the large corpus of bird lore surrounding St Valentine’s Day. For example, a young woman can tell what kind of man her future husband will be by the first bird she sees when she wakes:

Blackbird – A holy man.
Robin – A sailor.
Goldfinch (or any yellow bird) - A rich man.
Sparrow – A Farmer.
Blue Tit - A happy man (A Tit Man?)
Crossbill - An argumentative man.
Dove - A good man.

The one to avoid is the Woodpecker – It means she will never marry. Probably just as well if he has a wood pecker. Fnar. Enough with the Carry On jokes.

There are some St Valentine’s Day superstitions and customs surrounding plants too. Grab yourself an apple and think of four or five potential mates and then say their names while twisting the apple stem. The name you’re saying when the stem breaks is your future spouse. Then cut the apple in half and count the pips. That’s how many children you’ll have. Another way to check how many progeny you’ll produce is to blow the seeds off a dandelion ‘clock’ on February the 14th. The number left after you’ve puffed yourself dizzy is the number of offspring you’ll have.

But the St Valentine’s plant is, of course, the rose. The rose was the sacred flower of Venus, Goddess of Love and, for the Countdown fans out there, is also an anagram of Eros, who was the God of Love. Every colour and shade of rose has a meaning. Here are just a few:

Pink (Pale) - Grace, Joy and Happiness.
Pink (Dark) - Thankfulness, Friendship and Admiration.
Red - Love, Respect and Courage.
Deep Red - Beauty and Passion.
White - Innocence, Purity, Secrecy, True Love.
Yellow - Joy, Friendship, Jealousy, Hope and Freedom.

A dozen red roses means ‘I Love You’. Six red roses means ‘I’m cheap’. However, there is a handy get-out clause for tightwads (are you reading this Neil?) as a single red rose also means ‘I love you’.

I bought Dawn a single red rose and a criminally expensive card.

Enjoy your evening you lovers!

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