7 Valentine’s Day Traditions From History That Are As Charming As They Are Creepy
There are few holidays more divisive than Valentine's Day. And whether you embrace it wholeheartedly and spend the day showering hearts on everybody, or rail against it as commercialized rubbish, you may be intrigued to know that Feb. 14 these days is a lot less, well, creepy than it was in centuries past. Valentine's Day traditions from history involve a lot of strange superstitions and folklore, ranging from the charming to the outright spooky. They cast our glitter-and-roses version of the day in an entirely different light.
There's a lot of historical argument about the origins of Valentine's Day, and what the relationship between Saint Valentine himself, the ancient Roman holiday of Lupercalia, and romantic love actually is. However, we do know that people across Europe have embraced it for centuries, and in the process have developed elaborate traditions that can seem a bit shocking to modern eyes. Valentine's Day was a time to express specific cultural ideas about love, relationships, women's roles, food and fate; you can tell a lot about society from the way it treats its lovers. And tracing the history of Valentine's Day also gives an insight into how modern conventions — flowers, cards, the idea of "love birds" — developed in the first place. Just in case you were looking for somebody to blame. Here are seven of the oddest bits of Valentines celebration in history, to put that smoochy Snapchat you got into perspective.
1. Giving Your Lover A Quail's Egg For ~Romance~
In the medieval period in European, Valentine's Day became a fairly elaborate holiday, associated with the folk belief that Feb. 14 was the day on which all birds chose their mates for the year. (Some folk traditions held that the first bird women saw on Valentine's Day prophesied their type of partner.) People wrote elaborate poems for prospective lovers and held celebrations in which true love was the central theme. And Valentine's Day food reflected that: they ate exotic foods that were meant to enhance fertility and beauty, from pheasant and quail eggs to apples and pears. Giving a lover a quail egg may pale against oysters or chocolates these days, but in medieval society that was the height of romance.
2. Decorating Your House With Lanterns Made Of Turnips
Celebrations of Valentine's Day in the Middle Ages went all out. Guests came to parties dressed to impress, with "tokens" pinned to their clothes — usually symbols of love, like the infinity sign or a motto in Latin, Amor vincit omnia, meaning love conquers all — and were shown into a banqueting hall filled with flickering love-lanterns. The lanterns themselves would perhaps raise eyebrows today; they were apparently made of candles placed inside hollowed-out turnips. Nothing says romance like a fiery turnip.
3. Drawing A Partner In A Lottery
This practice is thought to be derived from the ancient Romans, but we have definitive evidence of it in the British Isles from the 17th century onwards. The Valentine's Day "lottery" is just what it sounds like: people at parties drew each other's names out of a vessel and were partnered up for the evening (yikes!). The French writer Henri Misson described the practice in the late 1600s, explaining that the billets were divided by gender and that each person could draw one from the pot — so everybody usually ended up with two different partners, leading to mild confusion.
Men, Misson noted, usually went with the woman they'd drawn, rather than with the woman who'd drawn their name, and "give balls and treats to their mistresses, wear their billets several days upon their bosoms or sleeves, and this little sport often ends in love." Probably not a practice we should bring back.
4. Serving A Mixture Of Leeks And Earthworms
If you had a sweetheart on Valentine's Day and wanted a proposal, or were married and wanted your love to be strengthened, there was a solution — but it may not be to your taste. Medieval "love potions" were actually reasonably common, combining ingredients that were thought to influence the body's humors, including garlic, onions, musk and myrtle. One elixir that dates from the 16th century, however, is less tasty. It comprises a mush of earthworms squashed in with leeks and then eaten. Serving that to a beloved in a strained relationship probably wouldn't help these days.
5. Writing Love Letters On Silk & Lace
The beginnings of truly elaborate Valentines cards began in America with the Civil War; absent soldiers could send missives to their beloveds that featured lace "flaps" that opened to reveal pictures of romantic military couples. But it was the Victorians who truly made the practice of love letters around Valentine's Day elaborate beyond belief. It became fashionable for stationery shops to sell specific satin and lace notepaper for loving letters to be sent on Feb. 14, presumably very carefully written so as not to smudge the fabric. If you ever complain about the glitter and opulence of Valentine's Day these days, spare a thought for Victorian swains.
6. Marrying The First Person You Saw That Day
Shades of this belief show up in Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, where Titania wakes and falls in love with the donkey-headed Bottom. Shakespeare was drawing on a real piece of Valentine's folklore: that women would fall in love with whoever first crossed their sight on Valentine's Day. An undated British rhyme reads: "When I go out, the first swain I see, In spite of fortune shall my true love be." Samuel Pepys' diary of 1662 reports, hilariously, that his wife walked around on Feb. 14 with her hands over her eyes so she wouldn't accidentally see the workmen who were renovating their house.
7. Divining Your True Love With Bay Leaves & Clay
Taking advantage of the atmosphere of Valentine's Day to try and divine your "true love" through various superstitions is a very old activity. And many of the practises were actually very sweet. A collection of English folklore from 1877 notes that the night before Valentine's Day, men would take five bay leaves, pin four to the corners of their pillow and the fifth to the middle, and hope they dreamt of the person they'd marry. And people of both sexes would take part in an 18th century game involving clay: they'd write the names of friends (and potential lovers) on pieces of paper, wrap those up in clay, wait for it to set, and then throw the balls in a dish of water. The one that floated up first was the one they'd marry.
Whether you're celebrating Valentine's Day with a beloved or spending the day single and buying yourself flowers, you've got to admit that modern Valentine's Day seems to lack a bit of historical flair. If you do want to add some old-time romance to the day, though, might I suggest going for silk love letters and not earthworms?