As Roman Catholics, Spaniards have great fondness for their religious holidays, which is just as well since every single day in the calendar is named after at least one specific saint, sometimes even two. Saint Valentine, or Valentinus, who symbolises health, kindness and love, is usually represented with a palm leaf and a sword, symbols of matrimonial union.
The feast day of St Valentine had a rather unusual beginning, dating back to 3rd century Rome. During this historical period, a priest named Valentine was engaged in marrying young lovers on the quiet. The ceremonies had to be conducted in secret, as such unions were forbidden by the ruling Emperor Claudius II, who claimed that young, unmarried men – without sentimental attachments – were the most useful in war. Nevertheless, the brave priest Valentine agreed to flout the orders of the Emperor and continued to perform marriage ceremonies under the radar until, eventually, the inevitable happened. Claudius II found out about the ceremonies Valentine had conducted and ordered the death of the priest. The sentence was carried out on February 14th, in the year 270, when Valentine was beheaded. Ever since, the date has been given to honouring the priest remembered as Saint Valentine, as a romantic hero who bravely defied the law – on pain of death – in the name of love.
Of course, this is just one interpretation of events that led to 14th February becoming a special date for lovers. Like all such myths and legends there are several versions that have found popularity over the years. However, the sad story of the 3rd century romantic Roman priest has greater widespread credence than any of the others.
It was not until the 19th century that Anglo-Saxon countries began to celebrate the date when, according to records, February 14th became a popular date for couples to exchange love letters and tokens of affection, including flowers. The American artist and entrepreneur Esther Howland (1828–1904), is believed to have played an important part in further popularising the spread of Valentine Day celebrations by designing and producing a special range of greeting cards in the United States and the practise is believed to have enthusiastically spread from there.
As in many other places in the world, celebration of the relatively new and much less romantic ‘Single’s Day’ – believed to have originated in China – is gaining ground in Spain. This is a date to recognise the joys and pride of being single, rather than being in a relationship. While the Chinese typically celebrate this holiday on 11th November (11/11 because 1 is said to be the loneliest number), in other parts of the world, including Spain, it is known as El Día de los Solteros, Single’s Day, and celebrated the day before Valentine’s Day, on 13th February, when those not involved in a relationship give themselves treats and special gifts in celebration of their single status.
No doubt there is much to be said in praise of the single lifestyle but little of it in any way related to romance and as yet, no special date has been agreed upon, or assigned to celebrate it globally. Meanwhile, cards, flowers and other love tokens will continue to be exchanged around the world on the 14th of February, in celebration of the life of Saint Valentine, the 3rd century priest who risked his life to join young couples in love in holy matrimony and, ultimately paid the price with his life.