Sexual Perversity and Marshmallows

Feature by Harriet Shawcross | 15 Feb 2006

Ah Valentine's day - red rose sales skyrocket, restaurant owners rub their hands together with glee, and I anticipate yet another card from my mother. Single or not, Valentines day has always seemed a peculiarly pointless holiday, designed to end in disappointment - or a take away, when you discover that all the nice restaurants are invariably fully booked.

However, there is something strangely gratifying in learning that one of the most saccharine holidays in existence has some decidedly sordid origins.

Valentine's Day is thought to stem from an ancient Roman festival, which took place every February in honour of the god Lupercus. As part of the festivities, the names of young women were placed in a box and drawn at random by adolescent men, in a perverse sexual lottery. The name that each young man picked from the box was to be his sexual partner for the following year – offering a whole new perspective on the humble Valentine's card.

However, the Christian church was disturbed by the Lupercian revels, and decided to give the festival a more religious slant, by replacing the names of women, drawn at random, with the names of saints. It was at this stage that the festival came under the patronage of St Valentine, to lend the festivities an air of Christian legitimacy. The name of the game this time was to impersonate the saint whose name you drew from the box, in a decidedly tamer lottery, which must have disappointed the male Roman population.

Nowadays the most exciting ritual associated with Valentine's Day is the exchange of cards, 85% of which are, somewhat depressingly, sent by women. However, the Japanese may have devised a way of getting round this dismal statistic, for in Japan Valentine's Day is celebrated twice, once on February 14th, and again on March 14th. This might sound like prolonging the torture, but it is in fact an ingenious way of making sure women are rewarded for being the chief gift-givers on Valentines. For on the second celebration, named 'White Day' after the marshmallow company that inaugurated the holiday, men are expected to return the presents they received a month before.

So, the moral of this story is, head to the Southern Hemisphere, or find some similarly lusty acolytes with whom to relive the old Roman tradition, to avoid disappointment this Valentines.