Speculation is that the word February comes from the Roman festival of purification called February where people were ritually washed. There is a Roman god called Februus, but he is named after the festival, not the other way around.
The interesting linguistic story, though, lies in England. Before the Latin name was adopted for the second month, Old English used much more vibrant names to describe it. The most common Old English name was Solmonath, which literally means ‘mud month’. I wonder why? A lesser-used term was Kale-monath, which meant ‘cabbage month’. We can imagine that our forefathers were eating a lot of cabbage in February in the 1100s. Not much romance there to be sure!
Anyhow, skipping swiftly along – Cupid-style – we move onto how Valentine’s Day came to be celebrated on the 14th day in February – there are numerous origins for Valentine’s Day – honestly, pages worth of the stuff – so I’ll try to précis for you.
The ancient Romans celebrated the feast of Lupercalia, a spring festival, on the 15th of February. With the introduction of Christianity, the holiday moved to the 14th of February–the saint day that celebrated several early Christian martyrs named Valentine.
One such Saint Valentine was believed to be a priest that defied the Romans and married soldiers and their sweethearts in secret. He was eventually martyred because the military couldn’t be having their soldiers distracted from waging war. Wonderful!
Later on, the romance of Valentine’s – with somewhat less hanging and martyring – came along through poets like Chaucer, John Donne and even Mr. Shakespeare. Here’s a nod to Valentine’s in Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 5:
To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.
Then up he rose, and donn’d his clothes,
And dupp’d the chamber-door;
Let in the maid, that out a maid
Never departed more.
While the custom of sending cards, flowers, chocolates and other gifts originated in the UK, Valentine’s Day still remains connected with various regional customs in England. In Norfolk, a character called ‘Jack’ Valentine knocks on the rear door of houses leaving sweets and presents for children. Although he was leaving treats, many children were scared of this mystical person.
Whether you choose to flatly ignore the mooning and swooning around Valentine’s or you’re intending spending a year’s salary on impressing the target (eek) of your affection, I’d like to wish you all a very Happy Valentine’s. That is unless you’d prefer to ignore the day itself and go with being washed down or eating lots of cabbage for the month.