Turning Year: Falling in and out of love with St Valentine

A swallow plays Cupid on this Victorian Valentine.
A swallow plays Cupid on this Victorian Valentine.

Birds choose their mates on Valentine’s Day, according to an old belief. While this sounds unlikely behaviour for February, our feathered friends are indeed pairing up.

The spur is not temperature but lengthening days – extra daylight triggers hormone production, promoting nest building and egg-laying.

Writers in Chaucer’s time were well aware of the link. Bird couples became a common motif in stories and love poetry, an alternative to that troublemaker Cupid.

By the early 1400s, “valentine” described both the loved one and the romantic verse, in the same way that it does today. But 200 years later courtly love was falling out of fashion. St Valentine’s Day became a game, with partners chosen at random by drawing lots. The men bought a little gift for their Valentine – who could be married to someone else – and the pair played at being sweethearts by exchanging compliments.

Eventually the romantics struck back. In the late 1700s people began to choose their Valentine secretly, and send their greetings anonymously by letter, sometimes with a charming drawing.

Stationers took note of these Valentine letters, and around 1820 they began to sell writing paper bearing embossed headings or engravings, created specially for romantic messages. The first cards printed with a set message appeared in the 1840s.

The twin strands of true romance and pretend flirtation can still be seen today in the choice of serious or humorous Valentine cards. Even those insulting cards are nothing new – the Victorians got there first with parodies of traditional greetings.

For the senders of joke Valentines it was just a laugh. But many recipients were so disappointed that the whole thing became tarnished. By the early 1900s people had fallen out of love with Valentine’s Day, to such an extent that it almost vanished. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the custom was revived, thanks mainly to American influence.

But is this obsession with romance good for us? In the ancient world, the great Hippocrates declared lovesickness to be a disease. One medieval Archbishop of York was so afflicted that he became unable to sleep or eat; his health wrecked, Archbishop Thomas died of love.

In later centuries, the lovelorn got short shrift. Ignored by your special one on Valentine’s Day? Friends would call you Dusty, and sweep you down with their brooms.

Sign of a chill

February can’t make up its mind. It’s mild one day, freezing the next. But we can’t be too annoyed because it brought us that amazing display of mother-of-pearl clouds.

Those bright, iridescent beauties, known to meteorologists as nacreous clouds, appeared around dawn and just before sunset when the sun’s light caught their tiny ice crystals. Lying 15 miles up in the stratosphere, far above other clouds, they are normally confined to the Arctic. Their rare appearance in our skies last week was a consequence of intensely cold air in the stratosphere being pushed from the pole towards northern Europe.

Whether this disturbance will affect our weather is unknown as yet, although it is possible. Previous sightings of nacreous clouds were followed by big freezes in February 2009 and January 2010, and a very cold snap in December 2012. Don’t go casting those clouts just yet.