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The Irish Link to St. Valentine
by Bridget Haggerty
As a young girl growing up in England in the 50s, I loved sending and receiving Valentine cards - messages that were always unsigned. As the sender, one would go to great lengths to disguise the source of the card. As the recipient, the fun was in trying to figure out the identity of your secret admirer.
When I came to the United States in the early 60s, imagine my surprise to learn that the custom here was to identify the sender. Not only that, cards were often sent to relatives, such as your mom and dad! It didn't seem very appropriate to me, then or now. In fact, I still think it's very odd and, while I have capitulated to custom and sign the card I give to my husband, there's a part of me that still wishes Valentine's Day could be like it once was - shrouded in romantic mystery.
Whether you sign your cards or choose to remain anonymous, have you ever wondered how this annual ritual began? Here's what the research into the history of St. Valentine revealed - and, much to my surprise - a link to Ireland that I was totally unaware of.
Today, the Catholic Church recognizes at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus. One legend says that Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome. When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young, unattached males. Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages in secret for young lovers. When Valentine's defiance was discovered, Claudius ordered him put to death. Another story suggests that Valentine may have been martyred for trying to help Christians escape harsh Roman prisons, where they were often beaten and tortured. Yet another legend says the saint was the one who sent the very first Valentine. According to the story, he fell in love with the jailer's daughter while he was in prison and sent her a message of affection, signed "From Your Valentine."
While much of what is written about the saint is, at best, very murky and unreliable, these stories certainly illustrate his appeal as a sympathetic, heroic, and, romantic figure.So, it's no surprise that by the Middle Ages, Valentine was one of the most popular saints in England and France. But why is his day celebrated in mid-February? There are those that believe it's to commemorate the anniversary of his death which occurred around 270 AD. However, it's more likely that the Church decided to make this day the feast of St. Valentine in an effort to christianize Lupercalia, an ancient pagan festival.
In ancient Rome, February was the official beginning of spring and was considered a time for purification. Houses were ritually cleansed by sweeping them out and then sprinkling salt and a type of wheat called spelt throughout their interiors. Lupercalia, which began at the ides of February - February 15 - was a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, as well as to the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus. To begin the festival, members of the Luperci, an order of Roman priests, would gather at the sacred cave where the infants Romulus and Remus were believed to have been cared for by a she-wolf or lupa. The priests sacrificed a goat for fertility, and then, young boys sliced the goat's hide into strips, dipped them in the sacrificial blood and took to the streets, gently slapping both women and fields of crops with the goat-hide strips. Far from being fearful, Roman women welcomed being touched with the hides because it was believed the strips would make them more fertile in the coming year. Later in the day, according to legend, all the young women in the city would place their names in a big urn. The city's bachelors would then each choose a name out of the urn and become paired for the year with his chosen woman. These matches often ended in marriage.
Pope Gelasius declared February 14th as St. Valentine's Day around 498 A.D. The Roman 'lottery' system for romantic pairing was deemed un-Christian and outlawed. Much, much later, during the Middle Ages, it was commonly believed in France and England that February 14th was when birds began to mate which added to the idea that the middle of February - Valentine's Day - should be a day for romance.
In Great Britain, Valentine's Day began to be popularly celebrated around the seventeenth century. By the middle of the eighteenth century, it was common for friends and lovers in all social classes to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes. By the end of the century, printed cards began to replace written letters due to improvements in printing technology. Ready-made cards were an easy way for people to express their emotions at a time when direct expression of one's feelings was discouraged. Cheaper postage rates also contributed to an increase in the popularity of sending Valentine's Day greetings. Here in the United States, we probably began exchanging hand-made Valentines in the early 1700s and then, in the 1840s, Esther A. Howland began to sell the first mass-produced Valentines in America.
According to the Greeting Card Association, an estimated one billion Valentine cards are sent each year, making Valentine's Day the second largest card-sending holiday of the year. Christmas is the first.
So, we've come this far and earlier, I mentioned a link to Ireland. According to Mike McCormick in an article that appears on the Ancient Order Of Hibernian's web site ..."though the red heart has become the traditional symbol of Valentine's Day, there may be reason to also consider the shamrock, for there is an Irish connection."
While there's no definitive written account of St. Valentine and his life in the third century, his Irish connection is more recent - and documented. In the year 1836, Pope Gregory XVI sent a gift to the Carmelite Church on Whitefriar Street, Dublin, in recognition of the work of the church's former prior, Father John Spratt, who was widely recognized as a very holy man. The gift was a relic of a Christian martyr: a small gold-bound casket containing the earthly remains of St. Valentine. The relic had been exhumed from the cemetery of St. Hyppolytus on the Tiburtine Way in Rome, placed in a golden casket, and brought to Dublin, where it was enshrined in the little church with great ceremony. This year, on February 14th, as it has in every year since, the casket containing the Saint's mortal remains will be carried in solemn procession to the high altar of the Carmelite Church for a special Mass dedicated to young people and those in love. If you're lucky enough to be there, this little known Dublin church also sells Valentine's Day cards. Truly, it can be said - these are the genuine article!
For those wishing to visit St. Valentine's Shrine in Dublin, the church is located between Aungier Street and Wexford Street, just a few minutes walk west of St Stephen's Green. Besides the cards, one can also purchase various souvenirs bearing the saint's image.
While I'd love to be there, it looks very unlikely that I'll be purchasing a card at the Carmelite Church in Dublin for my husband this year; but, I've decided not to buy him a ready-made card anyway. As much as St. Valentine is connected with love and romance, Ireland and her poets are every bit as rich a resource for communicating expressions of passion and affection. So, I'm going to create my own card; select a poem from literally hundreds, probably thousands of Irish verses, that express my feelings. Or, just may be, this year I'll dedicate to him something of my own. Then, I'll arrange to have it mailed from somewhere afar. Perhaps, Ireland. Best of all, I'm not going to sign it. All of that said, I'll leave you with these timeless words of love by Thomas Moore. He married his beloved Bessie in 1811. Whatever looks she may have had were ruined by a skin disease after they had been married for some time and she feared that, as a result, she might lose his affection. His reply was to write one of the most beautiful love songs to her as reassurance:
Believe me if all those endearing young charms
which I gaze on so fondly today
were to change by tomorrow and fleet in my arms
like fairy gifts fading away,
Thou would'st still be adored as this moment thou art
Let thy loveliness fade as it will
And around the dear ruin each wish of my heart
would entwine itself verdantly still. It is not while beauty and youth are thine own,
And thy cheeks unprofaned by a tear
That the fervour and faith of a soul can be known
To which time will but make thee more dear.
Oh! the heart that has truly loved never forgets,
But as truly loves on to the close,
As the sunflower turns on her God when he sets
The same look that she gave when he rose.
(For more about Thomas Moore & his poems)
Happy Valentine's Day - especially to all of you who have subscribed to these efforts. We've been privileged to get to know more than a few readers from comments and emails - but most subscribers remain anonymous. We think of you as our very own group of secret readers who seem to enjoy finding out as much about Ireland as we do. May it always be so.
Images: Irish Language Valentine card from Smaointe
Smaointe cards may also be sent as an e-card. Please click: Irish Corner.
Valentine Card by Jonathan Swift from Irish Abroad.
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Tue, Dec 2, 2014
Holly and Ivy hanging up and
something wet in every cup*
Not so long ago, Irish Christmas decorations were much simpler than they are now. The children gathered holly and ivy for adorning, windows, doorways, mantles and pictures, and the father would carve out a turnip in which would be placed a large red candle. This would go in the window to light the way for the Holy Family on Christmas Eve. Only in relatively recent times did an Irish family have a Nativity scene and a decorated tree in the house. As for Mistletoe, it's quite rare in ireland and is generally associated with ancient Celtic and Druidic fertility celebrations; this is most likely where the custom of kissing under the mistletoe comes from.
*Old Irish Christmas toast
Image: Pashley Manor Gardens.
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Click here for Irish Incense.
All the poems in this anthology are neatly placed into categories such as "Intimations, "Flirtation and 'Courtship', 'Praise and Devotion', 'Youth, Age and Memory,' and many more. Included are works by Swift, Goldsmith, Yeats, Beckett, Wilde, Synge, and Seamus Heaney, as well as offerings from a young generation of emerging poets and several by our all-time favorite, "anonymous!"
Click for Irish Love Poems.