Guide to Saint Valentine's Day in France: Festivals, Events, Things to Do

St Valentine

Known as la fête de Saint Valentine (the holiday of Saint Valentine), Valentine's Day—or some version of it—has been celebrated in France for hundreds of years. While the origins and the customs associated with the holiday are the sources of some debate, it's generally considered a day for romance, especially in France's biggest cities.

However, unlike in America where Valentine's Day is often a time to express the love of friendship, the holiday of Saint Valentine in France is exclusively devoted to romantic love for a significant other. As a result, February is often a popular time for couples to visit France but can be a rather lonely time to be in the country if you're single.

If you plan to travel to France for February 14 with your special someone this year, there are plenty of romantic ways you can spend the holiday. From visiting some of the most intimate destinations in the countryside—including to the town of Saint Valentine—to enjoying an exquisite meal at a Parisian restaurant, check out these recommendations for a romantic trip to France this February.

Meet St. Valentine: The Legend Behind the Holiday

Before heading out to France for a romantic trip this Saint Valentine's Day, it's important to understand the cultural significance of St. Valentine. However, two major historical figures claim the honor of being this saint: Valentine of Trevi and the martyr Valentine of Rome. 

Valentine of Trevi was made bishop in 197 A.D. and died after being imprisoned, tortured, and beheaded on the Via Flaminia in Rome for being a Christian. While not as popularly celebrated as Valentine of Rome, Valentine of Trevi is revered among devoutly religious groups in France.

Valentine of Rome, on the other hand, has been the star of many legends, one of which revolves around his imprisonment for defying Emperor Claudius, who had decided that single men made better soldiers, thereby outlawing marriage for young men. Valentine went on performing secret marriages for young lovers. Another version involves Valentine helping Christians escape the Roman prisons, which ironically led to his own imprisonment. He fell in love with a girl and wrote to her before his death, signing "From your Valentine."

Now, Saint Valentine is remembered as the patron saint of love, lovers, and happy marriages, but he also helps beekeepers and those suffering from epilepsy, plague, and fainting as well as people who are traveling.

Learn Why La Fête de Saint Valentine Is on February 14

Another important facet of Saint Valentine's Day you should know before you head out on your vacation to France is that it is celebrated on February 14 for a variety of reasons. While many believe February 14 to be the day Saint Valentine was martyred (or buried), another explanation holds that the holiday was used by the Church to clean up (and capitalize on) the pagan celebration of Lupercalia.

Lupercalia was a fertility festival dedicated to the Roman god of agriculture, Faunus, and the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, which happened to fall on February 15. On this day, the order of Roman priests called Luperci went to the sacred cave where two young children were believed to have been looked after by a she-wolf (lupa in Latin).

During the festival, the priests sacrificed a goat (for fertility) and a dog (for purification). Cutting the goat’s hide into strips, they dipped them in the sacrificial blood and went out onto the streets, beating any woman who happened to be passing by with the goat hide to make the women fertile in the coming year.

Although the festival was banned in the Fifth century A.D, at the same time, the Pope declared February 14 to be St. Valentine’s Day.

Discover the Origins: Who Celebrated St. Valentine First

Saint Valentine's Day and romantic France go hand-in-hand, though England has a role to play in establishing the connection between Saint Valentine and love, and there are many myths and legends swirling around the origins. In the Middle Ages, the exchange of love letters and love tokens on Valentine’s Day is thought to have originated with the start of the mating season for birds. Soon it was the turn of the troubadours and poets in the 14th and 15th centuries who extolled the virtues of courtly love. 

It was also the English who claimed the first recorded association of Valentine’s Day with romantic love, as it appears in "Parlement of Foules" (1382) by Geoffrey Chaucer who wrote, “For this was Saint Valentine’s Day when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.” But as he was probably referring to May, it’s the French who take the honor for the first official recognition.

In Paris, a High Court of Love was established on Valentine’s Day in 1400. The court dealt with love contracts and betrayals with judges selected in a very different way: they came courtesy of the wishes of women on the basis of a poetry reading. The earliest surviving valentine is a 15th-century poem written by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife as he languished in the Tower of London. He was captured after the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 and wrote to her saying: “I am already sick of love, My very gentle Valentine.”

William Shakespeare also references Valentine's Day in Ophelia's lament in Hamlet: "Tomorrow is Saint Valentine's Day/All in the morning betime/And I a maid at your window/To be your Valentine."

Avoid "Drawing For" Love in France

The French also invented a particular Valentine’s Day custom called "drawing for" wherein unmarried people gathered in houses facing each other and called the name of their chosen partner through the windows. It all seemed very romantic, but the charm was spoilt when the man decided his choice didn't come up to scratch and proceeded to desert his Valentine.

Naturally, the women retaliated and the custom developed of building a huge bonfire where they burnt the image of the now hated male while yelling abuse at him, his family, his manhood and anything they could think of to insult his pride. It became a rather embarrassing and heated event, so was wisely banned by the French government.

Fortunately, you won't have to worry much about avoiding drawing for ceremonies during your trip to France this Valentine's Day; however, you may run into some smaller villages that still practice this antiquated customs.

Visit Saint Valentin, the Village of Love

Today, Saint Valentine’s Day is celebrated throughout France and is a good excuse to get your loved one some specialty chocolats or beautifully-arranged fleurs. However, France also has a special Valentine's Day event that no one else in the world can claim: the Saint Valentin Lovers' Garden (Garden des Amoureux).

The little village of Saint Valentin is located in Indre in the central Val de Loire Region, and despite having a population of just 280 people has made the most of this February event since the 1980s. The annual Lovers' Garden festival is centered around Valentine's Day and features thousands of fresh blooms and floral arrangements to celebrate the season of love.

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