St Valentie's Day

The origins of the feast of St Valentine, saint of lovers, are obscure, but they may be linked with the Roman festival of Lupercal, celebrated about 15 February, on the spot where the wolf was said to have suckled Romulus and Remus. Then men drew girls by lot, as partners. When Valentine was martyred about 270 AD the early church attempted, with some success, to transfer the Lupercalian revels to the saint's feast. It became a part of the celebrations of the church's saints day with prayers for St Valentine's day

Being half Italian myself, I can relate to these Roman festivals, which sound much more fun than some of the festivals that happen these days. As a violinist, the normal comment is made to me regarding my Italian ancestry, is that I tend to fiddle as Rome burns. Grossly unfair that! I think my Italian ancestry is more relevant to my classical violin playing and playing with a string quartet, where a surprising number of favourite wedding places are by the romantic Italian composers, or go back earlier than that to Vivaldi and his contemporaries. 

Girls sometimes believed that they would marry the first bachelor they saw on 14 February and carefully avoided unacceptable candidates: Mrs Samuel Pepys, wife of the English diarist, covered her eyes all the morning on St Valentine's day, 1662, against the painters at work gilding the chimneypiece. Present-giving and lot-drawing were entertainments of the day. Henri Misson de Valbourg, a Frenchman who visited England about 1700, wrote: 

"On the Eve of I4th of February, St Valentine's Day, a time when all living Nature inclines to couple, the young folks in England and Scotland too, by a very ancient custom, celebrate a little Festival that tends to the same end. An equal number of Maids and Bachelors get together, each writes their true or some feigned name upon separate billets, which they roll up, and draw by way of lots, the Maids taking the Men's billets, and the Men the Maids', so that each of the young Men lights upon a Girl that he calls his Valentine, and each of the Girls upon a young Man . . . each has two Valentines: but the man sticks faster to the Valentine that has fallen to him, than to the Valentine to whom he is fallen. . ." 

These traditions were taken to America by the first English settlers, but the Puritans of New England frowned upon such frivolity: 'No lad shall attend a maid on the fourteenth of February,' ran one repressive declaration. Public expressions of affection were banned by law: Captain James Kemble returned from a three-year sea voyage on 14 February 1764 and. in a Boston street gave his wife a smacking valentine kiss: he was promptly sentenced to two hours in the stocks for unseemly behaviour. 

It's hard to believe that America was once like that. From the musical point of view, the Yee Haa American barn dance or hoedown epitomises old America and his style and values. Similarly with jazz and the jazz band, exuberant and laid-back, not puritanical as the time in American history that we have just been talking about. 

Today valentine gifts are fully exploited commercially and heart-shaped boxes of chocolates, perfume, cakes and other presents appear in the world's shops early in February. Florists say that more red roses — emblems of love — are bought for St Valentine's day than for any other day of the year: a custom said to have begun in France when Louis XVI gave his queen, Marie Antoinette, red roses on 14 February. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, valentine cards — at first homemade, later stationers' confections of tinsel, lace and flowers — began to be sent anonymously to objects of affection. So heavy was postal traffic on St Valentine's day that in nineteenth-century London, postmen claimed a special allowance for meals to sustain them during their labours. The popularity of valentines has not decreased since then. The Duke of Portland's, card to Betsey Keates in 1847 carried a romantic rhyme typical of many such tributes: 

If you love I as I love you,

No knife shall cut our love in two.

As an aside, Valentine's Day is fast approaching as I'm writing this, and I have had not such subtle hints that I must recognise this important day. So the importance of these customs is not diminishing, and their observance remains vital for the survival of the male species. 

In modern Cuba, St Valentine's day, favourable for all matters of the heart, is 'Loving Day', and the average number of weddings celebrated in the Palacios de los Matrimonies, largest of Cuba's 'wedding palaces', jumps from a normal thirty to well over one hundred. The day constantly provokes fresh responses. On 14 February 1975, it was arranged that 120 British paratroopers, returning from duty in Northern Ireland, should jump into the arms of waiting sweethearts and wives, in a 'St Valentine's day lovers' leap'. The troops, sixteen at a time, parachuted down into a heathery field near Aldershot, Surrey. Identification of the falling figures was not easy! Two ambulances, engines running, stood by, but the only casualty was a wife who twisted her knee dashing over to her husband. The British Army, showing suitable poetic licence, called the jump 'a normal training operation'. The one thing that was missing from this spectacle was one of our string quartets playing romantically in the landing field. We've often played for army events, but regrettably they never asked us for this one. 


leap year goes back to the Romans, as so many things choose one. In about 46 BC, Julius Caesar reformed the Roman calendar. This was the Julian calendar. This was modified in 1582 at the orders of Pope Gregory XIII, with the Gregorian calendar. This corrected the fact that a year is approximately 365.25 days long, hence the extra day every 4th year i.e. the leap year. As the history of the leap year goes back so far, it is hardly surprising that myths and traditions to do with weddings also go back a very long time. 

In a 'leap year' or 'ladies year', every fourth year, natural order is overturned and girls propose to men. In 1936 the British Post Office issued 'golden valentine telegrams' to assist such enterprises: thousands were delivered. If rejected in leap year a girl may claim a compensatory silk gown, and in 1288 the Scottish parliament issued a helpful ordinance, firmly stating the old usage in black and white: 

. . . for ilke year known as lepe yeare, oik maden ladye of bothe highe and lowe estait shall hae liberte to bespeke ye man she like, albeit he refuses to taik hir to be his lawful wyfe, he shall be mulcted in ye sum of ane pundis or less, as his estait may be; except and awis eif he can make it appeare that he is betrothit ane ither woman he then shall be free. 

Similar laws were passed in France, Genoa and Florence. Even today it is said jokingly that no man is safe during a leap year: but if he is caught all will go well — 'Happy they'll be that wed and wive within leap year: they're sure to thrive'. 

So with all this uncertainty and last-minute happenings around the leap year, I wonder if it means that bookings for our string quartets and ceilidh bands are low for that particular date, or does it mean that the bookings are last-minute? I really should look back at the statistics.