Although many fanciful stories have been invented to explain how Saint Valentine is associated with Valentine’s Day, it is most likely that the holiday is actually an early spring festival that celebrates the coupling of early spring, which just happens to fall around the same date as the saint’s feast day. In the Middle Ages, this day was known as the day that the birds find their mates.
There was also a folk belief that the first person you meet on Valentine’s Day will be your true love. Ophelia plays with this idea when she says to Hamlet:
Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s Day
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.
Another form of divination involves bird watching. According to British folklore, the first bird you see on Valentine’s Day tells you what sort of man you’ll marry. (Sorry, guys, but all these marriage divinations seem to be designed for women!) If you see a blackbird, you’ll marry a minister; a dove, a good-hearted man; a goldfinch, a rich man; a sparrow, a happy man; a crossbill, an argumentative man; a robin, a sailor; a bluebird, a happy man; a hawk, a soldier; an owl, a man who will die soon. And if you see a woodpecker, you will never marry.
If you want to try a more modern version of this divination, you might do as I am doing: observe the birds in your neighborhood and then look up folklore related to that bird. Or participate in Audubon’s Great Backyard Bird Count, which takes place over Presidents’ Day weekend and this year overlaps with Valentine’s Day.
Waverly Fitzgerald is a writer, teacher, and calendar priestess who has studied the lore of holidays and the secrets of time for decades. She shares her research and her thoughts on her Living in Season website and in her book, Slow Time. She is currently working on a series of essays about looking for nature in the city and blogs for the Seattle PI as the “Urban Naturalist.”