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Sunday, February 10, 2013

Wherefore art thou, Valentine?

Valentine's Day is usually believed to have originated as a day of commemoration for Saint Valentine, a Roman who was martyred for his faith on February 14, 269 A.D. As it happened, St. Valentine's Day fell on Lupercalia, the Roman festival of wolves.   On this day, men and women would choose partners for the day and celebrate fertility.  The men would playfully whip the women and then couples would pair up for fertility rites. In more modern times, Italian couples sit and read poetry together, or listen to music though, in Rome, St Valentine's Day is still known as Lupercalia, a very romantic and pleasure-loving occasion.  

Over time, February 14th became associated with love, romance and sweethearts.  St. Valentine’s Day has spread around the globe and is even popular in many countries where the government has specifically banned it.  No matter where you are or how you celebrate, one thing seems evident…love is truly universal. 

In Europe, during the Middle Ages, single people would draw names from a bowl to determine whom their valentines would be and then wear these names on their sleeves for one week. This is where we get the expression “wearing your heart on your sleeve” to mean that it is easy for other people to know your feelings.

In olden times, women used to watch for birds flying overhead on St. Valentine’s Day.  It was believed to be an indication of whom the woman would marry:
·         robin - she would marry a sailor. 
·         sparrow - she would marry a poor man but be very happy
·         goldfinch - she would marry a millionaire

In Denmark, a transparency is sent which is known as a lover’s card. When held up to the light, you can see a picture of a lover handing his love a gift.  People also trade poems and candy snowdrops.  Joking letters, gaekkebrev, are sent with the sender’s name signed as dots.  If the recipient can guess the correct person, they will send that person a candy egg at Easter.

In France, there used to be a tradition known as Calling for Valentines. This custom involved unmarried men and women going into houses which faced each other and then calling out across from one window to the other, hoping to pair off with the one they have chosen.  If the young man didn't care for the valentine he was paired with, he would desert her.  Afterwards, a bonfire was lit where the young ladies who had been deserted would yell out abuse while burning images of the deserters.  Eventually, the French government came out against this practice as it culminated in not-so-loving incidents.

In Scotland, St. Valentine's Day is celebrated as a festival during which an equal amount of single men and women get together. Each writes their name (sometimes their real name…sometimes not) on a piece of paper which is then rolled up. The names are placed in two hats and a drawing is held, splitting the group into couples.  Gifts are given to the ladies who then wear the name of their valentines over their hearts or on their sleeves.  There is often a dance and sometimes even romances or marriage after the festival.  It is common practice for established lovers to give each other a love token or a true love knot.

Germans love flowers which is evident on St. Valentine's Day.   Large bouquets of flowers are chosen for that special lady but they must be her favorites. This shows that the man has been paying attention and doesn’t just think of her as “any girl”.

In Victorian England, elaborate Valentine's Day cards used to be given among family and friends.  This custom was then taken to Australia where elaborate valentines were made out of a satin cushion.  The cushion was perfumed and decorated with flowers and shells.  A taxidermed humming bird or bird of paradise was also included and then the valentine would be delivered in a decorated box.

In Korea and Japan, young women give candies to their boyfriends. While the Korean women buy these chocolates, the Japanese women think it is not true love unless they make the chocolates themselves. There is another special day called 'White Day" on March 14 which is just the opposite of St. Valentine's Day.  Young men give chocolates to their girlfriends and confess their love. Young people in Korea who have no girlfriend or boyfriend have another special day called 'Black Day' on April 14. On this day, they eat Jajang noodles with friends who are similarly unattached.  

In Taiwan, St. Valentine's Day is celebrated February 14th, but there is also a special Valentine's Day on the Seventh Day of the Seventh Month of the Chinese lunar calendar. This second day is based on a Chinese fairy tale from long ago.  Both are important days to send flowers.  These flowers can contain a host of messages. One red rose means an only love while eleven roses mean a favorite. Ninety-nine roses mean forever but one hundred and eight are a marriage proposal.

Here in the United States, roses also symbolize both love and forgiveness. White roses are for true love, red roses are for passion, and yellow roses are for friendship. Black roses mean farewell. 

Friday, February 1, 2013

Is it Spring Yet?

We've all heard of Punxsutawny Phil, that infamous little groundhog who shows his head bright and early on a February morning in Punxsutawny, Pennsylvania each year to predict the early arrival of Spring.  And, as many know, he has a good friend named Wiarton Willy, who is responsible for predicting the weather in Canada.   Such an enormous job for two such small fellows.  How did they get such a big responsibility?

Groundhog Day is celebrated on February 2nd, or Candlemas, which falls halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox.  Candlemas is the day set aside to remember the day of the Christ Child's presentation at the Temple on the day of Mary's Purification after His birth.  European superstition once held that if it was sunny on Candlemas, an additional six weeks of winter weather would occur.  If it was cloudy, Spring would come early.  The Germans used an animal (usually a badger or a hedgehog) as an instrument to determine whether or not it was sunny out on this day.  When the German settlers came to Pennsylvania, they brought this practice with them and adopted the groundhog as their animal indicator.  The first "official" trip to Gobbler's Knob in Punxsutawny on Groundhog Day to obtain Phil's prediction was made in 1887 by a group of groundhog hunters known as "The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club." Today, the largest Groundhog Day celebration is still conducted in Punxsutawny though celebrations are held in a number of other states and various Amish communities.