La Fête de Saint-Valentin, a French Celebration?

La Fête de Saint-Valentin, a French Celebration?

We’re all familiar with the French welcome. A subtle peck on each cheek, sometimes more, or perhaps an air-brushed equivalent. It’s a complex interaction. It led me to wonder how the French react when it comes to la fête de la Saint-Valentin? I asked my pal, Jerome.

“We French are tasteful, of course. Often we give flowers or small gifts and dine out somewhere special, well, normally. Of course, this year it’s impossible. Pah! to covid.”

The protocol seemed similar, so I decided to do some digging. While accounts vary, most agree that the tradition started with the Romans and a priest called Valentine. During the 3rd century, he allegedly enraged Emperor Claudius by illegally conducting weddings for soldiers who were forbidden to marry. Valentine was imprisoned.

While in prison, Valentine cared for other fellow inmates and tutored the jailer’s blind daughter. Legend has it that God restored her sight when they prayed together. On his eventual death, he wrote a note to her, signed, “From your Valentine.” He was executed on the February 14th 270. Other theories suggest that Valentine’s Day was a spin-off from the Lupercalia feast held on February 15th. Mind you, their interpretation of romance was at best tenuous.

Celebrating Lupercalia (an ancient deity who protected herds from wolves) meant the usual mix of pagan fun including animal sacrifices and feasting. This one was made particularly colourful by the Luperci (priests who oversaw the event). They allegedly dashed around with pieces of the sacrificed animal’s hide, striking at any woman who came near. Those lucky enough to be touched would have her fertility assured.

All-in-all, it was a good excuse for bouts of violent, rampant sexual behaviour, performed in the name of warding off evil spirits and infertility.

In the late 5th century A.D., Pope Gelasius I banned the pagan celebration of Lupercalia and instead declared February 14th a day to celebrate the martyrdom of Saint Valentine. While laudable, it is improbable he intended the Day to have its present-day connotations.

During the Middle Ages, the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer linked Valentine’s Day with romance. A tradition emerged where chivalry and delicate expressions of adoration were discretely displayed, often with tokens secretly exchanged.  The first Valentine’s note is considered to have been sent by the Duke of Orleans. While imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1415, he sent poems and ‘Lettres d’amour’ to his wife in France.

I even spotted a reference suggesting that during this period, it wasn’t only Chaucer who had a preoccupation with the birds ‘n bees. Apparently, the French believed birds mating in mid-February marked the season of love. For this reason, lovers gave gifts on Saint Valentine’s Day. They also celebrated an event of a very different kind.

Valentine’s Day was known as ‘la loterie d’amour’, the love lottery. Single men and women would gather in houses and shout at their intended partner through the windows until they were all paired off. It was a simple, albeit loud celebration, and one with a catch.

If the man did not like his chosen woman, he would reject her. Not to be outdone, the wronged women built bonfires, burned effigies of their ex-suitors and hurled abuse at them. Whilst the only thing sacrificed was male pride, the celebrations became over-exuberant and were eventually banned by the government.

Interesting though my romp through history was, I was still interested to know whether there are any other differences in how la fête de Saint-Valentin is celebrated in France today. I asked another French friend.

“It is not a fête for young children. Only people who are really in love celebrate.”

“Do you exchange fun cards of endearment?”

“No, not so much here.”

Was there anything else? I knew who would know. Marianne, my beautician pal, is an incurable romantic.

“Ah, it’s bliss, but only for sweethearts, of course.”

“Are there any national celebrations?”

“Not many, although there is a village in the Indre called Saint Valentin. It is named after Saint Valentin himself and used to be visited by pilgrims. They call it the village of love, and there is even a Lover’s Garden.”

“I’ve never heard of it.”

“They say it’s incredibly romantic. Before covid, they held a festival every year in the village during February. People came from all over the world to renew wedding vows and declare their amour. Some even get married there. There are lots of events.”

“It sounds a perfect place for couples in love.”

“Yes, maybe it’s a little garish, but I want to go one day with my partner!”

I had my answer. Of course, there are many similarities in the way la fête de Saint-Valentin is celebrated and a couple of key differences.

The Day is exclusively for lovers. Cards are not popular, but a special dîner pour deux is. Sadly, due to current circumstances that can’t happen. Instead, I suspect les amants will declare their flame with flowers, perhaps a small gift, and dinner at home with a nice bottle of wine. And you know what? That sounds perfect to me. Until next time ….


Thanks again Beth for this enlighting new piece, like you, we look forward to spring next month and more stories. Until then you can see Beth's lovely books and stories on her FatDogs website.


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