St. Valentine’s Day: the lovers’ holiday
Traditions, origins and sweet nothings.
14 February is a date well known to lovers, for it is, of course, Valentine’s Day, when it is traditional to offer a gift to your sweetheart. Is having a special day to celebrate love the ideal opportunity to bring some joy into our lives? Or is it just a way of encouraging us to consume more? In France, people are aware that their capital city is often associated with love and romance, but what do they themselves like to do for Valentine’s Day? How to say happy Valentine’s Day in French?
A maligned but popular celebration
Some claim that Valentine’s Day has been entirely concocted by our consumerist, globalised society. It has been suggested that confectioners came up with the holiday to get rid of their unsold Christmas chocolate, seeing a celebration in February as a way of boosting their business, which is generally quiet until Easter. It’s also said that this unique day is vital for jewellers’ sales. As for the French, while 80% believe that Valentine’s Day is a commercial holiday, 75% still opt to give their partner a gift on this date!
But what’s the story behind Valentine’s Day? Historians disagree to such an extent that it’s difficult to provide a definitive answer to this question. Some tie it to the Romans, who were devoted to the Lupercalia festival in honour of Lupercus, the god of fertility. The Lupercalia celebrations were, however, quite different from the romantic holiday we know today. Other historians explain that Valentine’s Day falls in mid-February because it is during this period that birds decide to build their nests and this might have prompted people to make a home.
The lovers’ holiday has not always been celebrated in France. It was a celebration which we adopted from the Anglo-Saxons to finally give women the power to choose their Valentine, to dance or chat to their suitors, and so some sociologists have seen it as representing progress towards gender equality. Previously, it had been more customary in France to have a meeting followed by a wedding. Festivities for lovers took on different forms depending on the region, however. In medieval Lorraine, a custom known as the Saudée saw all men of marriageable age notionally paired off with their intended. Then, everyone came together in the village square. The fictitious engagements lasted for a year, during which the young men had to present their heart’s desire with gifts.
The most popular gifts
What do men like to buy for the women they love? In general, the most popular gift is the traditional bouquet of flowers, which is even ahead of rings and candlelit dinners. Many French men opt for roses, but there’s nothing stopping you from giving a bouquet of hyacinths, mimosa or even buttercups. To help save the planet, choose seasonal flowers as a more eco-friendly option than imported roses, which travel thousands of miles to reach Europe.
You can of course refer to your sweetheart as mon chéri (or ma chérie for a woman), meaning “my darling”, or mon amour (“my love”). But do you know any other mots doux (sweet nothings) that you can whisper to your loved one? It’s fair to say that French people certainly aren’t lacking in imagination on this point. If you like animals, mon chat (cat), mon lapin (rabbit) or ma biche (doe) would be perfect for you (the latter is the pet name Louis de Funès gave his wife in his films). And should your better half refer to you as ma puce (flea) or mon canard (duck), don’t worry, it’s not an insult! Quite the opposite in fact! Mon chou (cabbage), mon sucre d’ogre (candy cane) or mon pain d’épices (gingerbread) are all options for those who love good food... As for incorrigible romantics, why not look to the great classics and go with ma dulcinée (Dulcinea) or mon Roméo (Romeo)?
Expressing your love
The French language is also rich in ways to express your feelings. Je suis tombé amoreux de... (I’ve fallen in love with...) is the most common wording. In Quebec, people stick more closely to English syntax and are more likely to say je suis tombé en amour. Avoir le coup de foudre (literally “to have a bolt of lightning”) describes the feeling of falling in love at first sight. Someone who has a cœur d’artichaut (an “artichoke heart”) is someone who falls in love very easily, while déclarer sa flamme à quelqu’un means to declare one’s love (une flamme also means “a flame”) and avoir le béguin is a slightly old-fashioned expression that is used to describe having feelings for someone (a béguin is a bonnet, but here means “a crush”). Finally, you can say that votre cœur bat la chamade, which means that your heart pounds every time you see the one you love. And for the day of love: Happy Valentine’s Day in French is “Joyeuse Saint Valentin”.
France and Valentine’s Day
In France, we have a cartoonist who became famous thanks to his sketches of young people. Raymond Peynet is the artist behind “The Lovers” a romantic couple created in 1942 who have been reproduced on posters, stamps, postcards and porcelain items. And one of two museums devoted to the illustrator can be found in Antibes, not far from Place Nationale.
Did you know that in France there’s a village with the cute name of “Saint-Valentin”? Located in the centre of the country, in the Berry region, it has its own stamps and a Lovers’ Garden. The latter is home to a “tree of vows” (with heart-shaped leaves) on which lovebirds can carve their names. Despite a population of just 300, the village is hugely famous in Japan, and Japanese couples come to France every year to visit this unique location.
Jean-Luc PICHON - 12/02/2021
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