VALENTINES DAY LORE: Legends behind Valentines Day

Lupercus - Valentines Day Lore and Legend

Lupercus - Slayer of wolves

Valentines Day lore is thought to have evolved from a spring holiday celebrated in ancient Rome. The feast of Lupercalia was actually celebrated on February 15 and honoured the god Lupercus, who protected the people and their herds from wolves.

On this day, dances were held for single young men and women. A man would draw his partner’s name from a piece of papyrus placed in a bowl. The man not only danced with his partner but was also obligated to protect her throughout the New Year, which began in March.

In many cases the partners became sweethearts and were soon married. When the tradition of these dances was later revived in the Middle Ages, a man would wear his sweetheart’s name on his sleeve. Even today we refer to someone who is quick to show their feeling as "wearing his heart on his sleeve."

Why it is called Valentines Day?

Valentines Day most likely received its name and date from Valentinus, a Roman priest who was beheaded on February 14 in the third century A.D. At that time, Emperor Claudius II banned all weddings and engagements. He believed that newly married men made poor Roman soldiers. Valentinus defied the emperor by performing secret marriages and has since been regarded as "the patron saint of lovers".

When Valentinus was imprisoned for refusing to worship pagan gods, children made bouquets, tied on love notes, and tossed them through the prison bars. Valentine then prayed for a miracle, hoping that God would restore the sight of the jailer’s blind daughter.

The Emperor Claudius became enraged when the miracle occurred and both the jailer and his daughter converted to Christianity. Condemned to die, the priest sent the young girl a farewell message signed simply, “from your Valentine.”

Here's a great little animated explainer video that gives a great history of Valentines Day in under 2 minutes:

Valentines Day Messages

Over time, love notes sent to sweethearts on February 14 became known as valentines - as did those who sent them. Paper valentines differed from those of today in that most were printed without messages. This left the 18th-century lover to pen his own sentiment. Paper valentines became popular in the 18thC.

Before commercial printers created the colorful heirlooms we now have from Victorian times, people created their own valentines from paper scraps. In the 19th-century a lady would trace the outline of her hand, then add a paper heart in the center as a symbol of her affection for the recipient.

Valentines Day Gifts

Valentines Bouquet - Valentines Lore and LegendMany girls of the same period made watch papers for their sweethearts. Cut from pretty paper, silk or satin, these small circles replaced the ordinary papers that kept the dust out of pocket watches. The circles were painted or embroidered with hearts, the lovers’ initials, or a special motto, and quickly became popular Valentines Day gifts.

Through the years it has been said that a girl could dream of her future husband on St. Valentines Eve by sleeping with four bay leaves pinned to the corners of her pillow. Sleeping with any of the following under your pillow could bring dreams of one’s true love:

  • A silver spoon
  • A small ladder made of sticks
  • A love-knot fashioned from wood shavings
  • Three pebbles gathered from a place newly visited, or
  • A bit of wedding cake that had been passed through a gold ring three times.

A woman should count the first nine stars she sees during nine consecutive nights. The first eligible man she sees the next day would supposedly become her husband - if she so desires. Legend holds that a young girl could see the face of her future husband by peering at the moon on St. Valentines Eve. For a time many believed this face was “the man in the moon.”

Happy Valentines Day :-)

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You can read the first part to this series here

SHAKESPEAREAN PHRASES: Origins of some of his most popular phrases

ACCORDING to one of those more educational DSTV adverts, the average person has a vocabulary of 10 000 words – 15 000 if you’re really smart. It also says that Shakespeare takes the cake with a vocab of 29 000 words. Exclamation!

The playwright was also the founder of a copious amount of English phrases and gives new meaning to what it means to become famous after you die. Quite ironic for a dramatist I thought.

On that note I thought I would do a little tribute post to the man we were all forced to study in High school. We may have hated him back then, but now we should appreciate his contribution to the English language.

So, at one fell swoop here are the origins of some of the more commonly used Shakespearean phrases:

Shakespearean phrases: 1. As dead as a doornailA dead looking doornail

My brother and I used to use this one quite a lot when we were young. I’m not entirely sure why, but I recall him using it adaptively to call me “as dumb as a doornail.” Anyway, the meaning behind this one is quite clear.

Doornails are the large-headed studs that were used in earlier times (14th century) to strengthen doors. Fitting doornails involved hammering them through and bending over the protruding bit. The ‘deadness’ refers to the un-usable-ness of inanimate objects, which is what the doornail became after a good hammering.

Shakespearean phrases: 2. Fight fire with fire

Fire-break gone pear-shapedWe use this one today to refer to attacking someone with the same means that the attackers employ – giving them a “taste of their own medicine” to use another phrase. Shakespeare did use this phrase in King John, but it’s more modern origin actually has a more literal meaning.

It was coined by 19th century US settlers and referred to actual fire-fighting. The settlers would guard themselves against grass or forest fires by deliberately lighting smaller, controllable ‘back-fires’ – a practise still done today except we now call them ‘fire-breaks.’

However, the Settlers’ fire-breaks were often unsuccessful and actually made matters worse for them and their highly flammable houses. It is said that this is where the phrase “to backfire” (i.e. to unexpectedly go wrong) originates.

Shakespearean phrases: 3. In a pickle
Pickled goodness

The origin of “being in a pickle” (i.e. a tight spot) does seem to allude to being in the actual vinegary pickling liquid what we find gherkins in today. Supposedly it would be difficult to escape if you ever found yourself in a jar of gherkins.

However, the phrase does have a more literal sense, which goes back to England’s greatest naval hero Admiral Nelson – who was literally picked in a barrel of brandy after a musket ball took him out.

Shakespearean phrases: 4. Tapping the Admiral

The above story makes reference to a related phrase I know of but am not sure whether it’s an urban myth or not.

Lord Admiral NelsonAlthough the majority of sailors who died at sea were simply thrown overboard, seamen of higher rank (such as the captain, his first mate and admirals) were preserved in barrels of brandy.

After several months at sea, several members of the crew would discreetly sip away at the brandy with the bodies in them, using tubes of pasta as straws – a saying that became known as “tapping the admiral.” When ships finally reached the shore the cargo crew would often find these barrel-coffins completely empty. Yummy.

Shakespearean phrases: 5. Makes your hair stand on end
A Freaked out porcupine

Shakespeare’s phrases and writing conjured up vivid imagery in the minds of the now well-deceased English people, and continues to have a grand affect on our imaginations today. Some literary exerts posit that no image better illustrates the sensation of one’s hair standing on end than a fretful porcupine.

The phrase is rather literal however, and refers to the actual effect of one’s hair (especially on the back of the neck) standing on end due to the skin contracting as a result of cold or fear. Chilling.

Shakespearean phrases: 6. Wear your heart on your sleeve

This one's for you baby!The meaning of wearing your heart on your sleeve is to display your emotions openly. You might remember this one from Shakespeare’s masterpiece Othello.

This rather strange phrase is said to derive from a middle-aged custom of knights wearing the colours of the lady they were supporting during jousting matches. They would wear a cloth or ribbon in the colour of their fair maiden around their arms before galloping towards impending pain or victory.

Shakespearean phrases: 7. Wild goose chase

The first use of “a wild goose chase” is referenced in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1592) whereby Romeo is keen to embark on a somewhat hopeless quest. We all know how that one ended.

Wild geese flying formationThe literal meaning that we infer from the phase today remains the same, however, its origin is more commonly thought to derive from the fact that wild geese are rather difficult to catch.

Yet there is an earlier, more technical meaning behind this phrase which refers to horse racing rather than the hunting of wild geese. A 'wild goose chase' was a chase in which horses followed a lead horse at a set distance, mimicking wild geese flying in formation. This use of the phrase became popularised 10 years after Shakespeare kicked the bucket.

Although the respected man is now gone his name and this tribute post shall live on forever. You can read about the origins of some other popular English sayings in the first series of this post linked below.

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SANTA: The story of St Nic, his red suit, his reindeer and little helpers

SO just who is that fat old jolly guy in the red suit that parades around shopping malls at Christmas time - entertaining kids and scaring adults with his “ho ho hos”? It’s usually someone’s dad – the one (in any community of close friends) with the biggest beer boep.

I caught on early that Santa was my dad and that the whole thing was a scam. The biggest tip-off was the request for brandy or schnapps to left by the tree at night rather than the more traditional milk and cookies. This was suspect, as the order was giving by my mother and my father enjoys his schnapps and brandy and never drinks milk.

Santa Claus: Poetic beginnings

Much of the present form of the Santa story is undoubtedly due to the works of Clement Clark Moore and the cartoons of 19th century American cartoonist Thomas Nast. In 1822, Dr. Moore from New York wrote a Christmas poem titled A visit from St. Nicholas (also know as The Night Before Christmas) to read out to his children on Christmas Eve. Here's a little extract:

Santa enjoying a bit of pipeweed
A depiction of Santa by Thomas Nast

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,

And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,

And laying his finger aside of his nose,

And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,

And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.

But I heard him exclaim, 'ere he drove out of sight,

"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!"

Santa Claus: The story behind the red and white suit

Images of Santa Claus were further popularised through Haddon Sundblom's depiction of him for The Coca-Cola Company's Christmas advertising in the 1930s. The popularity of the image spawned urban legends that Santa Claus was in fact invented by Coca-Cola; or that Santa wears red and white because they are the Coca-Cola colors.

In reality, Coca-Cola was not the first soft drink company to utilize the modern image of Santa Claus in its advertising. White Rock Beverages used Santa to sell mineral water in 1915, then in advertisements for its ginger ale in 1923.

Furthermore, the massive campaign by Coca-Cola simply popularised the depiction of Santa Claus as wearing red and white. This is in contrast to the variety of colours he wore prior to that campaign (a popular garment being a green cloak). The colours red and white were originally given by Nast.

A brief history of St Nicholas

Father Christmas, who also goes under the alias of St Nicholas and Kris Kringle, has a bit of a sketchy history – predominantly attributed to legend and folklore. There is also a darker historical account that attributes some of the qualities and roles of St Nic to the pagan deities of Artemis and Poseidon.

An early depiction of St Nic

The most plausible story of Saint Nicholas as an actual human figure dates back to 4th century Myra – a southwest port of modern day Turkey. The legend goes that Nicholas was a bishop that took pity on a poverty-stricken family with three daughters, who faced the threat of being forced into prostitution because they had no wedding dowries.

To save the girls from this fate, St. Nic tosses two bags of gold through an open window of their house at night. He threw a third one down the family’s chimney (which apparently landed in a stocking that had being hung near the fireplace to dry).

This is considered as the basis of the belief of Saint Nicholas as a loving gift-giver. It is believed to be the beginning of the tradition of hanging stocking near the fireplace at Christmas.

Santa’s little helpers

You can imagine the amount of slave-labour required to make millions of toys each year for all the good little boys and girls. Santa traditionally makes efficient use of child-labour in the form of little elves – popularised by fictional texts such as “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien.

However, up until the Second World War, it was believed that Santa Claus was only helped by one servant. One relatively modern story is that Saint Nicholas liberated an Ethiopian slave boy called 'Piter' (from Saint Peter) from a Myra market, who was so gracious he decided to stay with Santa as a helper.

At the end of the war, when the Canadians liberated the Netherlands in 1945, they reinstated the celebrations of Sinterklaas for the children. Unaware of the traditions, the Canadians thought that if one Zwarte Piet was fun, several Zwarte Pieten would be even more fun. Ever since, Santa Claus is helped by a group of Zwarte Pieten (i.e. little black Ethiopian slave boys).

Yet with the influx of immigrants to the Netherlands starting in the late 1950s, this story is felt by some to be racist. Today, Zwarte Piet have become modern servants, who have black faces because they climb through chimneys, causing their skin to become blackened by soot.

Santa’s reindeer

The commonly cited names of Santa’s reindeer are also based on those used in Nast’s 1823 poem. It is arguably the basis of reindeer's popularity as Christmas symbols. However, Santa Claus did have a favourite – his red-nosed ‘draw-horse’ Rudolph – who quickly became popularised by the mass media.

Rudolph the red-nosed reindeerAccording to legend, Rudolph was the son of Donder and was born with a glowing red nose. This made him a bit of a social outcast among the other reindeer. However, one Christmas Eve it was too foggy for Santa to swing a cat, or to make his flight around the world and deliver presents to the masses.

About to cancel Christmas, Santa Claus suddenly noticed Rudolph's nose and decided it could be used as a makeshift lamp to guide his sleigh. Since then, Rudolph is said to be a permanent member of Santa's staff, who leads them on their journey and gets extra special attention at Christmas!

  • For more information on the history and origin and Santa Claus, his reindeer, his helpers, his legend etc., here is a fantastic online resource.

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THIRTEEN: A few Friday the 13th (and 13) superstitions

Friday the 13th

MOST cultures have superstitions centered on the number 13 which can be traced right back to those ancient Greeks. They did however agree that fear of the number 13 is an irrational fear, calling it triskaidekaphobia [triss-ka-deck-ah-phobia]. Nonetheless the idea that the number 13 was somehow bad quickly spread. The Greeks' traditional rivals, the Turks, have virtually removed 13 from their vocabulary.

Here are a few 13-related superstitions:

  • Several tall office buildings do not have a 13th floor. Next time you’re in a tall building check whether or not your life is in danger by seeing if the elevator has a button for a 13th floor.
  • Beware of Christening your children with 13 letter names. Some believe that people with such cursed names live notoriously bad or evil lives.
    Examples: Jack the Ripper, Charles Manson.
  • Sportsmen are notoriously superstitious and many teams avoid using the number 13 in their squads or teams. I’ll admit it’s never fun being the 13th man in a sports team.
  • The number 13One superstition is that if 13 people sit down to dinner together all of them will die within the year. One form of this legend dates back to the Norse god of mischief - Loki. The saga tells of Loki gate-crashing a party - bringing the number of guests to 13. To cut a long saga short, Balder the good was killed, and for this reason several Norwegians still believe that 13 at a dinner party is bad luck.
  • There are 13 loaves of bread in a baker’s dozen. The extra loaf (presumably the runt of the litter) was baked as a special bribe for the devil not to spoil the batch of loaves.
  • The number 13 plagued biblical times too. The book of Luke (chapter 22) tells us that there were 13 present at the Last Supper. There is also evidence that this Last Supper was held on a Friday, and is of course when Judas Iscariot threw a bread-loaf at Jesus.
  • Some people (possibly Christian fanatics) are so afraid of Friday the 13th that they refuse to get out of bed or go to work on the cursed day. A study in the British Medical Journal in 1993 looked into the relationship between driving and road accidents in the UK on two separate Fridays: the 6th and the 13th.

The study was carried out over a period of a few years, and eventually concluded that:

"Friday the 13th is unlucky for some. The risk of hospital admission as a result of a transport accident may be increased by as much as 52 percent. Staying at home is recommended."

Friday the 13th Dates:

In 1998 Friday the 13th appeared three times on the calendar, in February, March and November. This occurred again in 2009 during the months of February, March and November. (There are usually two days of doom in a year). While occasionally we survive a year that has only one Friday the 13th, it is impossible for a year to pass without any death days ever occurring.

So lock yourselves away, call in sick, avoid any tall buildings and dodgy people with 13 letter names, and cancel any dinner party plans in case the number 13 gets YOU! You have been warned.

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ENGLISH: The history and origin of some popular English sayings

Do you ever use old English sayings such as “saved by the bell” or hear your grandmother squawk something like, “Heavens, it raining cats and dogs outside!” A lot of people still do yet have no idea where such phrases originate from.

I got a little history lesson the other day which explained the dark truth behind some of these popular figures of speech. I thought I’d share them with those of you who are interested in the English language. Slip them into conversation next time you’re at the pub, or tell granny what she’s actually referring to.


Wedding Bouquet (image: Historical truths behind old English sayings

Old English sayings: 1. Why brides carry a bouquet at weddings:

England back in the day was a smelly place to live. Most people only bathed once a year (usually in May). Thus most people got married in June because their BO (body odour) wasn’t too bad one month down the line. However, they were starting to smell, so brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide any stench.

Hence the custom today of carrying a bouquet when getting married.

Old English sayings: 2. “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater!”

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater - Historical truths behind old English sayingsBaths consisted of a big tub filled with hot water. The man of the house had first dibs on the nice clean water, then all the other sons and men, then the women and finally the children. Last to be bathed were the babies. By then the water was so dirty you could actually lose someone in it.

Hence the saying, "don't throw the baby out with the bath water."The rule of thumb - Historical truths behind old English sayings

Old English sayings: 3. “The rule of thumb”

Women had it pretty tough in the old English days. Husbands were allowed to beat their wives by law for anything that they considered to be disobedient. The only condition was the phrase "rule of thumb" (derived from an old English law), which stated that you couldn't beat your wife with anything thicker than your thumb.

Old English sayings: 4. “It’s raining cats and dogs”

It's raining cats and dogs - Historical truths behind old English sayingsThe majority of medieval Brits lived in hovels that had thatched roofs with no wood underneath. It was the only place for animals to get warm, so all the cats and other small animals (mice, bugs) lived in the roof. When it rained it became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip off the roof.

Hence the saying "it's raining cats and dogs."

Old English sayings: 5. Why the poor were “dirt poor”

Historical truths behind old English sayings - Dirt Poor

There was nothing to stop things from falling into the house. Besides having bugs, animal droppings and other crap fall from the roof the floors were dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt such as thresh (straw) which was kept in place using wooden planks (hence the saying “threshold”). But for the poor it was plain dirt.

Hence the saying "dirt poor."

Old English sayings: 6. “Bringing home the bacon”

The dirt poor mostly ate vegetables that they would stew and re-stew in a large cauldron over the fire. Often leftovers would remain in Bringing home the bacon Historical truths behind old English sayingsthe pot for days on end. However, on special days they would sometimes obtain pork, and when visitors came over they would hang up their bacon to show off. It was a sign of wealth that a man could "bring home the bacon." They would cut off a little to share with guests and would all sit around on their dirt floors and "chew the fat."

Old English sayings: 7. Food for thought… or possible death

  • Those with a little money had plates made of pewter. Food with a high acid content caused some of the lead to leach into the food, causing lead poisoning and often death. This happened most often with tomatoes, so for the next 400 years or so, tomatoes were considered poisonous.
  • Bread was divided according to status. Workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle, and guests got the top, or "upper crust."
  • Lead cups were used to drink ale or whisky. The combination would sometimes knock the imbibers right out for a couple of days. Someone walking along the road would take them for dead and prepare them for burial. They were laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days and the family would gather around and eat and drink, or chew the fat, and wait and see if the poor sod would wake up.

Hence the custom of holding a "wake."

Old English sayings: 8. “Saved by the bell”

This is a reference to boxing and quite literally means to be saved from a beating by the bell that signals the end of a boxing round. The saying does not originate from people being buried alive. However, this was not an uncommon occurance, and several people were so afraid of this happening to them, that they took measures against it - such as by tying a bell connected to a rope around their hands. Here's how the urban myth goes:

England is small – very small relative to the huge population at the time. But the death toll was high and gravediggers started running out of places to bury people. So they would dig up old coffins, take the bones to a "bone-house", and reuse the graves.

Saved by the bell - Historical truths behind old English sayingsWhen reopening these coffins, 1 out of 25 were found to have scratch marks on the inside, meaning 1 in 25 people had been buried alive. To prevent this from happening they would tie a string on the wrist of the corpse, lead it through the coffin and up through the ground, and tie it to a bell. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night (the "graveyard shift") to listen for the bell.

Thus, any unfortunate drunks could be "saved by the bell!"

  • If you know the origin of any other old English sayings please share them below and help spread a little knowledge!

Want more? See: Historical truths behind English sayings II

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