A special day - but not just for lovers

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 February, 2006, 12:00am

In a world divided by conflict, shamed by poverty and misery, threatened by bird flu and now racked by Muslim protests over western blasphemy, time out to express love and care for others comes around all too rarely.

Today - the 15th day of the first lunar month - we celebrate yuan xiao, or Spring Lantern Festival. It is widely referred to as Chinese Valentine's Day, although historically it has nothing to do with romance. The legend dates back to the Han dynasty, around 100BC, a homesick palace maid called Yuan Xiao and the use of sweet dumplings and red lanterns to pacify the god of fire.

In Chinese tradition, everyone would emerge with lanterns on this night, creating the only opportunity for unmarried girls to set foot outside their homes and get a chance to meet men - which is where the concept of romance kicked in.

Then on Tuesday we mark the western version of Valentine's Day - a romantic occasion that has been embraced with enthusiasm in Hong Kong. It is a time to acknowledge appreciation for loved ones. Over the centuries, most cultures have adopted it and celebrated it as a time of sharing, caring and giving.

As with the Chinese version, we rely for its origin on word handed down through the ages. This goes back to a Roman pagan festival. The middle of the shortest month of the year - February 14 - was a time in early spring when birds began to pair and mate.

St Valentine himself was a martyr and love played a part in his capture and death. In one version, he wrote a love note to the daughter of one of his jailers before being executed - hence the Valentine's Day tradition of writing uncharacteristically romantic love letters and poetry, often to people unaware they are the object of affection.

Like Christmas and Mother's Day, Valentine's Day has evolved into a global commercial phenomenon. Lovers and secret admirers will spend billions on flowers, chocolates and gifts, although it will be interesting to see if anyone comes up with the $168,000 needed to book the Valentine's Day package at a hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui.

In short, it is a time to reflect on our feelings for others, and perhaps by extension to remember the needy in our society - the elderly, homeless and handicapped among them. Above all, in a city in which people are supposedly absorbed in making money, perhaps it can serve as a reminder that we need to understand, care and love all year round.