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Thursday, 14 February 2008

Customs of Saint Valentine's Day

The 14th February is better known as 'St Valentine's Day' and it is without question the most popular day of the year for romance.

The custom of sending anonymous greeting cards to ones sweetheart or 'Valentine' is as popular as ever, yet the St Valentine's Day we know today actually evolved from the ancient Roman festival of 'Lupercalia', part of which was the choosing of sexual partners for the coming year by the drawing of lots. The names of all the eligible girls were placed in a vessel dedicated to the god 'Lupercus', and the boys each in turn pulled out a name to see whom fate had chosen for them.

'The Valentine Lottery' as it later became known experienced over the centuries ebbs and flows of popularity and unexpectedly became fashionable once again in the early Victorian era as a party game.
If a girl was courting but unlucky enough not to receive a Valentine greeting from her sweetheart today she would be deemed as 'Dusty' and therefore had to undergo the indignity of being swept down by either her Mother or companions with a broomstick or wisp of straw. The idea was to create as much embarrassment to the 'dusty victim' as possible as she then had to cast lots with the other girls in the usual manner.

The primary goal of St Valentine's Day is to find an ideal partner suitable for marriage. This year, 2008 is 'Leap Year' so what better time to remind everyone about the age-old rules of 'Leap Day proposing'. Planning a marriage proposal is an anxious, yet exciting time for anyone thinking about popping the big question, and most will agree that the rules of courtship, namely the very act of proposing should be done in the proper way.

Traditionally, 'Leap Day' 29th February is the only one true day when a lady can propose marriage; but according to custom only if she is wearing a red petticoat. Everyone knows that when a gentleman proposes marriage it is customary for him to go down on one knee, however, in a lady's case the customary and proper procedure is for her to lift up her dress and show her red petticoats. Red being the colour of lifeblood and has strong symbolism to love, warmth, passion and fertility. In Roman times brides wore a red veil called a 'flammeum' as a symbolic statement of their sincere love and that they were fertile (menstruating) and therefore ripe for the marriage bed. No doubt the custom of showing ones red petticoat to propose on Leap Day is a remnant from such ancient marriage customs.

Few young ladies wear petticoats these days and it's therefore hardly surprising that this aspect of Leap Day proposing has been lost. However, one suspects that a flash of red knickers would do just as well today, and what man could refuse that! It is worth pointing out that if on Leap Day a gentleman declines the offer of marriage, he has to pay the forfeit to buy the lady a pair of gloves for Easter.

1 comment:

Polly Peirce said...

What a lovely explanation of a more or less forgotten tradition.
I had heard so many different explanations, but this one is by far the most preferable.

I think I shall have to nip off into town tomorrow and purchase some red flannel and make myself a nice new petticoad in readiness for the 29th!

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