A couple of weekends ago, I was lucky enough to catch a preview screening of Juno, which was released on February 8th, in time for Valentine's Day. It's an offbeat comedy which tells the story of the title character Juno, an American high-school girl faced with an unplanned pregnancy. In the film, Juno explains the origin of her unusual name, which is that of the Roman Queen of the Gods. What they don't say in the film is that the goddess Juno was associated with women and marriage and that February 14th was once a holiday in her honour. In fact, this may be part of the reason that the tradition of Valentine's Day arose. The following day, February 15th was also a festival in ancient Rome, known as Lupercalia. One of the customs at this time was that on the eve of Lupercalia unmarried Roman girls would put their names on slips of paper that would be placed in jars. The young men of the place would then take names from the jars to determine which girl would be their partner for the festivities. They might even be paired for the entire year, and often their chance partnership would extend into romance and marriage.
A similar lottery became popular in Britain in the Middle Ages. The names of young men and women would be drawn from a bowls in pairs and the men would wear the name of their selected valentine on their sleeve for a week (perhaps the origin of the modern day expression “to wear your heart on your sleeve”). They would exchange gifts and the man would be honour bound to protect his young lady in the year ahead.
And what of St Valentine after whom the day is named? There are a number of stories and different St Valentines but the best known tale tells of a time when the Emperor Claudius II decreed that all marriages and engagements would be cancelled so that his soldiers would not be distracted from their soldierly duties by the commitments of love and family. St Valentine, who was a priest in Rome at the time, secretly married couples against the will of Claudius and when this was discovered he was sentenced to death by beating and beheading. Thus he was martyred, as it so happens, on February 14th and declared the Saint of Lovers. He is also said to have cured the jailer's daughter of blindness and, before he was dragged off for his sentence, to have left her a farewell note signed “from your Valentine”, as we might sign our Valentine's cards today.
Happy Valentine's Day!