This article explains the roots of Valentine’s Day from both an Eastern and Western perspective and then considers why we should celebrate it, and who we should celebrate it with.
Valentine’s Day in the Western Tradition
Valentine’s Day may be a celebration of one, two, or even more saints martyred during Roman times. One was the bishop of Terni. Very little is known of him other than he was executed for his Christianity after becoming a bishop, around AD 197. The second was bishop of Rome who died around AD 289, although it is possible that the texts are referring to the same person. A third Valentine was martyred and suffered with a number of others in Africa.
Valentine of Rome was imprisoned and persecuted for performing weddings of soldiers who were forbidden to marry. Emperor Claudius II was having difficulty getting men to join his army. He believed it was due to them having strong attachments to their family, so declared marriage illegal. Valentine saw this as an injustice, and disobeyed this order by continuing to perform weddings in secret, He was found out and then arrested. Whilst under arrest, it is said that he restored the sight of his jailer’s daughter, with whom he fell in love with. Before his execution, he sent a letter to her, signing it ‘Your Valentine’ as a way of saying farewell. This has become the tradition of how we now sign Valentine cards today. Valentine of Rome was thought to have been sentenced around 14 February.
Pope Gelasius I, in 496 AD, dedicated the 14th February as Valentine’s Day as a way of Christianising the Roman celebration of ‘Lupercalia’. Lupercalia was a Roman fertility festival which took place between the 13-15th February. Young men would strip naked and spank young women as a way of aiding their fertility. During these three days the Romans celebrated the god Faunus, who protected sheep, cattle and goats from wolves.
Linking Romance to the Valentine Tradition
The story of Valentine’s Day was spread from Italy, to France and England by Benedictine monks. Valentine’s Day was given a more romantic association by the English poet and author, Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century. He wrote a poem called the ‘Parliment of Foules’ for King Richard II and Anne of Bohemia to honour the first anniversary of their engagement. In this poem, he says that it is on St Valentine’s Day that every bird comes forward to choose their mate. There was a popular notion during the middle ages that 14 February was the start of the mating season of birds. He made the connection between St Valentine’s Day and romantic love and popularised it love through his writing and poems. In the late 16th century, Shakespeare also mentions St Valentine’s Day in A Midsomer Night’s Dream and Hamlet. It wasn’t until the 18th century when Valentine’s Day became more widely celebrated, and it was customary to exchange small gifts with loved ones and friends.
China has the equivalent of two Valentine’s day celebrations: the Lantern Festival and Qixi Festival.
In ancient times, the Lantern Festival was the only time of year when young women from respectable families were allowed out to see the amazing lantern displays. The Festival originates from the Han Dynasty and is celebrated on the first full moon of the year. Lanterns are very symbolic in China, they are a wish for a bright future, especially red ones, as they represent prosperity and a booming business. The colour red signifies happiness and gold is the colour for wealth. When they float away, they are said to carry away worries.
The Qixi Festival, or “double seven” festival, takes places on the seventh night of the seventh lunar month, so in 2019 will be celebrated on 7th August. It celebrates a tale of star crossed lovers: the Weaver Girl star (Vaga star) and Cowherd star (Altair star). Vaga star and Altair star fell in love with each other. However, in the heavens of the Chinese mythical world, it was forbidden for these stars or deities to have a heavenly relationship. When word reached the Heavenly Empress, she banished Cowherd to earth to live as a mortal, as punishment. Weaver Girl was made to weave non-stop in the skies. She would weave clouds made from silk on her magical weaving machine. After many years, a group of fairies asked Heavenly Empress if they could go to the mortal world to Bi Lian Lake and take Weaver Girl with them. Catching Heavenly Empress in good spirits, she agreed.
In the mortal world, Cowherd was born into a family of farmers. After his parents died, he was driven out of his home by evil siblings with just an old ox and broken cart. He worked hard ploughing the fields for many years and managed to build a small house and get by.
Unknown to Cowherd, his ox was actually the Golden Ox star, who had tried to put a good word for him with the Heavenly Empress, but who was himself punished. One day the Ox told him to go to Bi Lian Lake, where he would find some dresses belonging to some fairies that were bathing in the lake. He was told to take the red one, then that fairy would become his wife. So, he went along to the lake and fairies spotted him taking running off with the red dress, grabbed their dresses and flew off into the sky, leaving just one stuck in the lake. Cowherd walked to the edge of the lake, holding up the red dress and asked Weaver Girl to marry him. The Weaver Girl instantly recognised him; accepted his request; and became his wife. They were very happy together and had a son and a daughter. However, when the Heavenly Empress heard, she ordered her heavenly guards to bring Weaver Girl back for punishment.
The heavenly soldiers seized Weaver Girl and flew off into the sky. Weaver Girl was unable to escape. Her husband held a basket with her children, and was cloaked beneath the Golden Ox’s hide and so was able to follow her. They had nearly caught up when the Heavenly Empress appeared, and with one wave of her hair-pin she created a galaxy (the Milky Way) between them. The couple gazed across the Milky Way and cried. Heavenly Empress allowed the couple and their children to stay in the sky as stars, and once a year they could all see each other. This was said to be on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, which is the date of the Qixi Festival.
This has been celebrated since the Han Dynasty, which started from 206 BC. The QIxi festival is still very important in the Chinese calendar as this is the time when many people have joint weddings, anniversary celebrations and kissing competitions every year.
Today: Tradition or Commercialism?
Modern symbols linked to Valentine’s Day include heart shapes; cupid with his bow and arrow; and doves.
- Aristotle and Galen said the heart had three chambers, then in the 14th century, Guido Da Vigevano drew some anatomical drawings of the heart, which resembled the description given by Aristotle. The familiar, modern heart shape seems may have come from a poem called Documenti D’amore by Francesco Barberino during the 14 century, which spread like wild fire. It also depicted a naked cupid standing on a horse throwing arrows, roses and hearts at bystanders.
- In Roman mythology, Cupid is the son of Venus, god of love and beauty. Cupid was god of affection and who would shoot golden tipped arrows into both gods and humans alike. Once his magical arrow had pieced a heart, it would cause them to fall deeply in love.
- Doves are associated with Venus, which would flutter around her head and rest on her hand. Some might say that Valentine’s Day has become commercial, but instead of thinking of showering lots of gifts on that one special person, it can be a reminder to try and be thoughtful to others.
Instead of thinking of Valentine’s Day as a time to bestow lavish romantic gifts, why not think of it as a time when we could spread love and kindness in the world? This might not just to one special person but everyone that we make contact with and not to forget being our own best friend as well! Here are some kindness ideas:
1. Positive touch, making connections and releasing your happy hormones
It’s true that when you become part of a couple, you can get no end of hugs and cuddles should you wish. However, if you’re not in a relationship, this might be something you miss.
- Positive touch has been shown to be extremely beneficial. Studies carried out on Romanian children in 1996/97 determined that those who were in an enriched group, where the ratio was one care giver to 4 infants, had better attention and performed better both physically and behaviourally and showed much lower cortisol levels. MRI scans reveal touch activates the orbitofrontal cortex and the caudate cortex. The orbitofrontal cortex is the part of the brain involved in learning and development and influences emotion. https://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/power-touch
- Human interaction is so nourishing for the soul, why not pick up the phone and give a friend you not spoken to in a while a call or visit an elderly relative and let them know you care. This can be enriching for both giver and receiver.
- The digital age has meant that we may have become more remote and are not in such regular contact with people. If you really appreciate someone why not give them a hug and let them know. Or do a kind gesture for a member of your family and give them foot or shoulder massage as it can promote those feel good hormones like dopamine. Dopamine influences intuition, joy and enthusiasm as well as inspiration according to the TOUCH institute at the university of Miami. Massage also boosts serotonin, which regulates mood, appetite, memory, to mention just a few. And lastly, oxytocin promotes feelings of bonding and can be helpful in pregnancy, birthing and lactation.
- Dutch researchers found that hugging can relieve or remove a person’s feelings of self-doubt. Isn’t this great… so why aren’t we hugging more if it has these kinds of benefits? https://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/releases/touch-may-alleviate-existential-fears-for-people-with-low-self-esteem.html
2. Being kind to yourself
Self-compassion has been identified to consist of three components according to the psychologist Neff (2003) (see https://self-compassion.org/about/): kindness, common humanity and mindfulness.
- Kindness is about giving yourself compassion when you feel like you have failed.
- Humanity is knowing that you’re not the only one suffering or feeling it’s only happening to “me”. This leads to feelings of self-pity and isolation.
- Mindfulness can help us recognise negative thoughts and feelings as being separate from ourselves, with less self-judgement.
- The end result is a better internal dialogue and a happier you.
3. Bathing in nature
Taking a walk with a loved one in the woods is actually proven to be a nourishing environment because of the presence of certain natural chemicals emitted by trees.
- The phytocides emitted into the air by trees and forests have proven to have a beneficial effect on the immune system as well as mental health. A study conducted in Japan measured phytoncides, (used in essential oils), monotrepenes, sesquitrepenes, and phenylpropenoids. The study showed that what the Japenese call ‘Forest Bathing’ can improve sleep; boost NK cells (a type of white blood cell); lower blood pressure; decrease stress hormones and reduce anger, anxiety and fatigue.
- Another study by T. Tsuchiya et. al. with lavender, lemon, valerian, and other essential oils, had the same effect.
4. Bringing nature indoors
By diffusing essential oils, we can bring some of these benefits from walking in nature, to the home. Oils such as geranium and orange can be very uplifting and help ease low moods. Lavender oil can ease symptoms of anxiety and this is also a good oil to use if to struggle to drop off to sleep. Diffuse chamomile for a sense of calm or vetiver if you’re feeling a bit irritable or in need of grounding. For those who want to create a more romantic ambience, ylang ylang is just gorgeous.
Whether you are in a relationship or not, spread a little joy to everyone this Valentine’s Day.