Friday, February 12, 2010

A Bit of Valentine Folklore

"Oft have I heard both youths and virgins say
Birds choose their mates, and couple too, today."
Robert Herrick, 1648

As another Valentine's Day approaches, how much do you know about this day of love?

Personally, I didn't know much until I pulled out my old folklore books. So, if you've ever wondered how the year's most romantic day got started, then grab a cup of tea and keep reading. Here are some facts you might not have known about Valentine's Day.

Birds Not Saints: First off, history tells us those two obscure Saint Valentines from the fourth century -- who may have actually been the same person -- didn't have much to do with bringing the love connotations to Valentine's Day. For the romantic aspects, you need to look to the birds.

As far back as the fourteenth century, Geoffrey Chaucer and other celebrated English and French writers believed that birds chose their mates on the feast of their patron Saint Valentine.

By Feb. 14, birds do start to reappear and repair their nests in some climates. So, the promise of spring renewal and fertility can be felt in the air around this time.  Plus, we've all heard the expression "the birds and the bees," although I don't see any mention of bees in this particular story.

Picking Valentines: In earlier times, Valentines were sometimes selected the night before. A group of young women and men would meet and write slips of paper with names on them. The slip you picked was your Valentine the next day ... and no cheating allowed.

On Valentine's Eve, it was also the custom to write names of prospective lovers on slips of paper. These were rolled into clay balls and dropped into a bowl of water. The first to rise to the top was your future Valentine.

"It is customary, alike for married as for unmarried people,
that the first person one meets in the morning ...
becomes one's Valentine."
Dutch visitor to London in 1663

There's also the centuries-old tradition that the first person of the opposite sex you see on Valentine's Day must become your Valentine. Not surprisingly, some would go blindfolded to the house of their desired sweetheart, so they didn't see the wrong person. Be sure to keep your eyes closed until the right one comes along too.

Valentine's Cards: The habit of sending romantic cards on Valentine's Day in the British Isles seems to have started in the mid-eighteenth century. The oldest known Valentine is in the Hull Museum and dates to 1750, writes historian Ronald Hutton.

In this post, the vintage Valentine's Day cards all came from RiptheSkull on Flickr. As I've mentioned before, she has a wonderful selection of old images. Go check them out if you haven't already, and tell her I sent you.

Don't forget, Valentine's Day is the last day to enter the contest for a free autographed copy of Grocery Gardening. Look for the winner to be announced soon! Thanks to all who participated...I became hungry just reading your responses.

Want to learn more about Valentine's Day? Drop by Nest in Style podcast for part two of our report on the "Gardening World and Social Media." In this episode, we talk with Steve Aitken, editor of Fine Gardening Magazine; plus, Joe Lamp'l and Theresa Loe of the upcoming PBS show Growing a Greener World.

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  1. A perfect post ... love the vintage cards! ♥♡

  2. Cute! A lovely post for St. Valentine's Day. Thanks.~~Dee

  3. Thanks a bunch, Joey and Dee. Hope you both find a nice Valentine. Or, at least, keep your eyes closed until the right one comes along. ;) Terea

  4. Teresa,
    What a lovely post! And I love that the holiday originated from watching bird behavior. The birds in my garden bring me such happiness, especially at this cold time of year.

  5. Carole, Thanks for your nice note. Very delighted to be included in your "Best of the Web Valentine's Edition" post with all those great writers... All the best, Teresa

  6. Valentine's day has actually taken on some real meaning for me now. I am one of those people who see any calendar directed festivity as meaningless calendar tyranny.

    The only day that has any significance to me is the winter solstice, because the days are getting longer. To think of birds making nests is something I can really relate to. I live in the milder parts of the UK, so I saw the first bird with a tuft of moss in its beak a week before Valentine's. Still, good enough for me. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Hi Teresa, I found you through Carole's blog. I love this post and will be sure to keep my eyes closed when going out on Valentines next! I would be more likely to see birds in any case! Your photos of vintage cards are great and I am intrigued about the Valentine link to birds! I must reread Chaucer! Looking forward to exploring your blog! ;>) Carol

  8. Hi Judy and Carol: Nice to meet you both...

    Judy, you'd be surprised how many of the old calendar holidays were linked to changes in nature. Makes sense, don't you think? ;)

    Carol, I must admit I haven't read Chaucer since high school. But it's fascinating how he and other writers discussed the bird connection to Valentine's Day.

    Thanks for your comments, ladies. Hope to see you again sometime. Teresa

  9. Teresa, Thanks for your comment and tweet! I love what you wrote about the link to birds as I sumitted my Love post with only pictures of birds... though not all lovey-dovey! I had no idea of the connection. Glad to have connected! Carol

  10. Carol: You're very welcome. Loved those bird photos on your blog. How interesting that we both focused on birds around now...just like people from earlier times.

    Glad we connected too. All the best, Teresa

  11. loved your post and learning about the folklore about valentines day .... hope you had a LOVEly day!

  12. Well that should quiet all the curmudgeons who keep claiming Valentine's Day was created by the card companies!
    Nice post, as usual, Teresa!

  13. Hi Kim and Victoria: Nope, those card companies really didn't create Valetine's Day. But they sure are benefiting now, aren't they? ;) Thanks for stopping by. Teresa

  14. To continue the literary theme, in Far From the Madding Crowd, heroine Bathsheba Everdene gets herself into a whole mess o' trouble by sending someone a Valentine.

  15. Thanks Helen. Also grateful for a literary tip. Cheers! Teresa