The many faces of St Valentine

IT is peculiar that the name of a pious man should be associated with romance and passion.

Who was St Valentine, the historical figure behind today's multi-million dollar Valentine's Day industry? A quick study of the link between St Valentine and today's romantic customs shows that there are innumerable plausible explanations.

So is St Valentine's Day just a farce? Not exactly. There really was a ''St Valentine'' listed among the martyrs in Roman History - around the third century AD - who was beheaded on February 14.

Rumour has it that the Roman Emperor Claudius II forbade the men of the city to marry, as marriage made weak soldiers.

But a priest named Valentine, unable to refuse the heart-wrenching pleas of love-sick soldiers, disobeyed the emperor's orders and married couples in secret.

There is another, just as probable explanation which claims that Valentine, a young Christian adored by all the city's children, was thrown in jail for not worshipping the Romans' God.


But sure enough, Valentine received thousands of exquisite hand-made notes, containing loving and often rhyming messages, which were slipped through the jail bars by all the children who missed him.

Still another, much less charming legend takes its roots from Normandy, France.

Supposedly, in Norman French, the language spoken in Normandy during the Middle Ages, the word ''galantine'' sounds very much like Valentine and means gallant or lover.

Naturally, this resemblance led the French to think of St Valentine as the special saint of romance and lovers.


The English, always ready to argue with the French, reject this explanation.

English theory states that February 14 is the day on which lovebirds (the animals, that is) choose their mate.


Geoffrey Chaucer, the renowned 14th century English poet, confirmed this idea in The Parliament of Fowls, when he wrote: ''For this was on St Valentine's Day/When every fowl cometh there to choose his mate.'' Shakespeare, in A Midsummer Night's Dream, adds to this belief: ''St Valentine is past/Begin these woodbirds but to couple now?'' But just as every culture has its ''proper explanation'', every nation has its unique Valentine custom.

Historians tell us that the English, quite fond of this festive day, probably celebrated Valentine's Day as early as the 15th century.

On this day, during the 17th century, English women, so they claim, wrote the names of hundreds of men on little pieces of paper, placed each of them inside a hollowed morsel of clay, and threw the clay stones into a river.


The first name that rose to the surface contained the name of her future lover.

This theory does beg the question - did they have waterproof ink in those days? Another custom comes from Derbyshire in central England, where unmarried women danced around the local cathedral on the eve of February 14, chanting verses such as: ''He that loves me best, cometh after me now!'' Their lovers, at the strike of midnight, supposedly appeared.

But these customs were not the only variation in the celebration of Valentine's Day.


The tradition of gift-giving also differed from one country to the next.

In Ireland, men frequently offered their valentines a new white pair of gloves. Was this the predecessor of today's box of chocolates? The chivalrous Spaniards honoured their valentines with an extravagant dress ball, with of course an appropriate ball-gown.

What a pity that traditions such as these have to fade.

Today, traditions still tend to mirror the culture.

For example, in most parts of America, children spend the day eating any sugary, artificially-made, fluorescent-coloured candy they can get their hands on.

Even the Valentine cards are not sent without stuffing in a heart-shaped candy or two.

France, on the other hand, shakes this day off rather flippantly, claiming that every day is tres romantique in France.

While there may not be one origin for St Valentine's Day, one aspect of February 14 remains invariable: almost every culture in the world has devised some sort of unique justification for a day when love and romance stand centre stage.