Valentine’s Day was originally the Roman feast of Lupercalia, a celebration of fertility. The holiday comes, in part, from the ancient Romans’ holiday honoring Juno, the goddess of women and marriage, on the night before the Feast of Lupercalia. Roman girls would put slips of paper with their names on them into a clay jar, and the boys would choose their partner for the festival by taking a slip from the jar. This was one of the few times girls and boys were allowed to socialize, and the dancing and games often evolved into courtship and marriage.
In 270 A.D. the holiday was Christianized (and the date changed from February 15 to 14) to commemorate the martyred Saint Valentine. Claudius II of Rome was waging several wars and needed to recruit more soldiers for his armies. He thought that many men were reluctant to join because they didn’t want to leave their wives and families, and so he temporarily banned engagements and marriages. Saint Valentine was working as a priest at the time and he and his partner Saint Marius broke the law and secretly married couples in small, candlelit rooms, whispering the ceremonial rites. Eventually Saint Valentine was caught and sentenced to death. While awaiting his punishment he would talk with the young daughter of the prison guard whose father allowed her to visit occasionally. Saint Valentine was killed on February 14, 269 A.D., but he had left a note for the guard’s daughter, signed, “Love from your Valentine.” By the late Middle Ages, the modern tradition—of exchanging paper love declarations, called ‘Valentines’—evolved.
Fiction writers have been inspired by love. While he was working on his novel Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert wrote dozens of letters to his lover Louise Colet, describing the writing process. But he also wrote some letters just to tell her how much he missed her. In one letter he wrote, “Twelve hours ago we were still together, and at this very moment yesterday I was holding you in my arms. … Now the night is soft and warm; I can hear the great tulip tree under my window rustling in the wind, and when I lift my head I see the moon reflected in the river. Your little slippers are in front of me as I write; I keep looking at them.”
The novelist Vita Sackville-West was inspired by her love affair with Virginia Woolf to write her novel Seducers in Exile (1924). In the middle of that affair, Sackville-West wrote to Woolf, “I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way. You, with all your undumb letters, would never write so elementary a phrase. … But oh my dear, I can’t be clever and stand-offish with you: I love you too much for that.”
Zelda Fitzgerald, the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, didn’t write much literature in her lifetime, a novel and a few short stories, but some of her letters to her husband read like love poems.
She once wrote: “I look down the tracks and see you coming—and out of every haze and mist your darling rumpled trousers are hurrying to me. Without you, dearest dearest, I couldn’t see or hear or feel or think—or live—I love you so, and I’m never in all our lives going to let us be apart another night.”
On Valentine’s Day in the US we celebrate romantic love, with florists importing several million pounds of roses from South America. About thirty-six million boxes of chocolates will be given as gifts. One of my favourite romantic books of all time is Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers (and yes, you have to read the first nine of the british mystery series first!)
But the Friends Bookstore has LOTS Of wonderful books that make ideal gifts for your sweetheart! Come in soon! We are open this weekend.