These days, we pretty much know what to expect on Valentine’s Day. Flowers, cards, chocolates – the usual. Or is it? This hasn’t always been the V-day drill. Other times and other countries have practiced traditions that may raise eyebrows today.
In France, heart day used to include a custom called “drawing for.” Unmarried people of all ages would file into houses that were facing each other, and then they’d “window shop” from across the alleyway. They’d call out to each other and choose a partner before pairing off. If a guy didn’t find his date particularly engaging, he’d dump her and find something else to do. Later that night, the jaded girls would gather around a bonfire and nurse their wounded egos together. They’d burn images of their exes and yell insults at them.
An old Italian tradition was for young single women to wake up before dawn and gaze out their window, waiting for a man to walk by. The first hunk to cross her path was either the man she was destined to be with, or bore a resemblance to the man she was supposed to marry. Best case – she found a man. Worst case – she only got a clue.
Another tradition was for girls to write the names of boys on several small pieces of paper, and then hide them in the middle of balls of clay. Then they’d toss the clay balls into a pool of water, and wait for them to dissolve. The first name to break free of the melting clay and float to the top was the boy she was supposed to marry.
Other girls would pin a bay leaf to each corner of her clothed body, which was supposed to make her dream of her future husband. If that didn’t work, there was always going to the church yard at midnight with a handful of hempseed. The girls would circle around the building, dropping the seeds while they chanted something along the lines of, “My true love is on his way and will be here soon.”
But perhaps the oldest Valentine’s tradition of all is the Festival of Lupercalia held in Rome, which is believed to be the pagan festival that Valentine’s Day was meant to replace. The festival was held every February 14, and women would write love letters and stuff them into a big urn. Then the men would pull a letter from the urn, and he’d pursue whoever wrote the letter he chose.
Although we celebrate today’s sappy holiday a little differently than those of yesteryear, all the essentials are the same. We’re still hoping to fall in love, stay in love, and do it all again next Valentine’s Day.