Attempting to get to the heart of the Valentine matter

Regular visitors to Slugger know that there is a keen sense of history on this site, with an appreciation for important dates and anniversaries. Over-reliance on such entities for material can, of course, be tedious after a while. Still, what the hell…

Today is of course a very important day for various historical and cultural reasons. It was on February 14th in 1400 that England’s ex-king Richard II died in his cell in Pontefract Castle (almost certainly murdered), a few months after being overthrown in a coup organised by his cousin. It was also on this day in 1779 that the explorer Captain James Cook was killed in a skirmish in Hawaii. Exactly a hundred years later, the War of the Pacific started in South America, with the Chilean army facing the combined forces of Bolivia and Peru. Finally, in 1989, Iran’s then Spiritual Leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa (death sentence) on Salman Rushdie over the writer’s recently published novel “The Satanic Verses” because of its alleged blasphemy. One cannot help but wonder what impact (if any) a Valentine card might have had on any of these events.


So much commercial and emotional energy has been expended on Valentine’s Day over the generations that surprisingly little attention is given over to the festival’s origins and meaning. The earliest written reference to its connections to romantic love is offered by Geoffrey Chaucer. In his 1380s poem, “Parliament of Fowls”, in a reference to the engagement of the ill-fated Richard II to Anne of Bohemia, Chaucer included the lines:

For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his mate.

The couplet would never make it intact through any spell-checker, but you get the meaning. Essentially, the creator of the Canterbury Tales was saying that it was on Valentine’s Day that birds chose their mates, ie, when their mating season began. One possible explanation as to why birds would begin their courtship so early in those days is that the calendar was still quite skewed, with the Spring Equinox falling on 12 March rather than 21 March. Not until 1582 would the calendar be properly reformed, under Pope Gregory XIII, though Britain and Ireland did not adopt it for another 170 years.

As for St Valentine himself, legend has it that this 3rd-century Christian martyr from Rome miraculously healed his jailer’s daughter, and wrote her a letter signed “Your Valentine” before being executed.

Today, the feast day of St Valentine has become big business everywhere. According to the British Retail Consortium, about £1.3 billion is spent annually in the UK on Valentine-themed cards, flowers, chocolates and other gifts. The potential tourism-related benefits are readily identified, too: Visit Northern Ireland offers lovebirds a range of ideas on celebrating the day. Valentine’s Day is of course an even bigger deal in the States, where greeting cards are also sent to immediate family members as well as partners or potential partners.

There are those who are reacting against Valentine’s Day, and not just because of the extent of its commercialisation. Saudi Arabia is one country where the observation of the feast is vigorously suppressed, on the grounds that it is a Christian rather than an Islamic festival, and also because the authorities there believe that it encourages men and women who are unmarried to mix. The police there have gone so far as to ban the sale of anything go so far as to ban the sale of red flowers and wrapping paper in the run-up to Valentine’s Day.

On a lighter note, those who are unhappily single on February 14 can seek solace in checking out this witty website, whose creators have dubbed the day “Singles Awareness Day” (S.A.D.).

Finally, a word of apology: if this offering reads a little disjointed, it’s because I’m in a bit of a rush, as I promised my girlfriend that I’d take her out for a meal before treating her to a theatre visit…

Happy Valentine’s/Singles Awareness Day, everyone…

Based in Birmingham, Dan is a journalist, broadcaster and actor.