Thursday,20 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1380, (8 - 14 February 2018)
Thursday,20 June, 2019
Issue 1380, (8 - 14 February 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Cupid sleeps in winter

Saint Valentine’s Day
Saint Valentine’s Day

Who has any need for romance in the middle of a dull and dreary February?

Spring is the season for love and lovers, “when a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love”, and also a young woman’s. Hearts start a-clicking as Nature wakes up from its winter doldrums, as the birds chirrup, the butterflies flutter and the bees go a-buzzing. The grass turns green and the willows and the lilacs welcome the birth of a new year.

It used to be the beginning of a new year, years and years ago. It was celebrated late in March at the vernal equinox when Spring begins — that was the ancient New Year — which makes sense.

Why then are we stuck with a New Year in the dead of winter, followed by Valentine’s Day and other spring festivities, before Spring is here? It is a strange convoluted tale, spanning two millennia.

From an astronomical and agricultural standpoint, January is a perverse time for beginning a new crop cycle... let alone a new year. The sun stands at no fiduciary place in the sky as it does for the spring and summer equinoxes, the four solar events that kick off the seasons.

Since the earliest times, long before there was such a thing as a calendar, the New Year was celebrated late in March... a seed sowing occasion. Ruins from ancient Babylon reveal that it coincided with the vernal equinox when Spring begins. Those were the dictates of Nature.

Who would cross Nature but Man?

Even in Rome, the centre of the world then, their ancient calendar recognised 25 March as the beginning of Spring, the first day of the New year... but man’s ego stepped in.

Emperors and high-ranking officials repeatedly tampered with the calendar, adding and subtracting here and there often to extend their time in office.

Calendar dates were so desynchronised with astronomical benchmarks. By 153 BC the Roman senate declared 1 January as the start of the New Year. All set dates turned topsy-turvy. More tampering dragged the year to 445 days by Julius Caesar in 46 BC.

To cut a long story short, the feast of love, romance, Nature’s rebirth is now in mid-February, rather than late March — the birth of Spring. Man seldom makes wise choices.

Back to Valentine. 

As early as the fourth century BC, the Romans engaged in a young man’s rite of passage to the god Lupercus, god of fertility. The Church was horrified at the pagan celebrations, which it considered obscene and distasteful. Determined to put an end to these pagan fertility rites, the Church, sought a “lovers” saint to replace Lupercus. The likely candidate was a bishop named Valentine who had been martyred — clubbed, stoned and beheaded by Emperor Claudius in 270 AD... accused of being “friend of lovers”.  Claudius had abolished marriage because single men made better soldiers; Valentine married couples in secret. 

Two-hundred years after his death 14 February 269 AD, the day was established Saint Valentine’s Day, a holy day for romance.

Reluctantly, in time the Romans replaced Lupercalia with the Church’s holy day, but it remained the time to meet and court prospective mates.

Valentine’s Day swiftly spread as lovers’ day.  

After the Romans conquered Britain in 43 AD, the British borrowed many Roman festivities. The English even believed that birds chose their mates on that day. Chaucer wrote: “For this was on St Valentine’s Day/ When every fowl cometh there to choose his mate”.

Valentine mania invaded the world — at least the world of lovers.

Messages are exchanged because, according to legend, Valentine tossed loving notes between the bars of his cell window, while awaiting his execution. Another story tells of how Valentine restored the sight of Asterius, his jailer’s blind daughter.

The custom of sending verses is traced to Charles, Duke of Orleans, while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1415. He sent his wife a rhymed love letter with Cupid prominently portrayed. It is the earliest extant Valentine card, now on display at the British Museum.

The first commercialised cards were made in the early 1800s in Britain by artist Kate Greenwood —children, gardens, birds and hearts were charmingly featured. Naturally, Cupid, the naked cherub, son of Venus, goddess of love, armed with his bow and arrows dipped, in love potion, ready to aim at prospective lovers, were the most popular. This image appears on most Valentine cards.  

The first American publisher of ‘valentines’ was Esther Howland who sold her elaborate lace cards from $5 to $35 in 1870. Since then the Valentine card business flourished. Some 190 million cards are exchanged in the US alone, second only to Christmas.

Cards are by no means the only expression of love… the list is endless, flowers are the second favourite. Two billion roses are sold that day, candy, jewellery, perfume, lingerie among others make it one of the most commercially profitable days of the year.

When 14 February came a little later in the old days, Cupid gladly obliged — but in such severe cold weather, naked as he is, surely he is not too eager to start the love cycle. 

Like most of us, would he not prefer Nature’s way?

Since we are officially stuck with such an inconsiderate, uncivilised, unnatural manner, we are forced to comply. We swallow chocolates and send cards.

Romance however, will still have to wait till Spring, when Nature and Cupid are awake.

“Love is the wisdom of the fool and the folly of the wise”.

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

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