- 10 Feb 2014 8:00 AM
In the 19th century cards were made with ribbon and lace, tiny mirrors, feathers and even hair, with verses declaring true love and often ending with the question, Will you marry me or no?
Whether anonymous or not, the sending of Valentine’s cards in Britain is still limited to lovers – the English language lacks any differentiation between the love of a friend or family member, and that reserved for those with whom we are ‘in love.’ In Hungarian there is no such ambiguity, szeretet expressing the former, szerelem the latter.
Before 1989, February 14th in Hungary was the name day for those called Bálint (in other words, Valentin), but the whole concept of Valentine’s Day as an occasion for sending cards, buying flowers or other gifts was quite unknown. However, as we stumbled into a post-communist world, increasingly bombarded with advertising and coming evermore under the influence of the media, I noticed the first flower shop window sporting red hearts and the words: Február 14 - Valentin Nap.
Also having noticed this same phenomenon, my cleaner asked if I had any inklings as to what Valentin nap might be. Clearly, it was an attempt to boost flower sales in the dreary cold and wintry gloom in the ‘dead’ period between Christmas and International Women’s Day at the beginning of March.
Lacking all knowledge of the origins of this custom, and led firstly by florists, Valentin Nap quickly became an occasion for giving flowers and sending cards to everyone you ‘love’ (szeretet) – obviously opening a far wider market than just those in love (szerelem).
The custom of giving flowers in Hungary is deeply embedded: no self-respecting guest would appear for lunch or dinner without at least a modest bouquet of flowers or a beautifully wrapped plant. Flowers are given on every imaginable occasion, to both men and women, and even to children (more especially girls) for birthdays and name days.
Flowers can be bought on every street corner in premises varying from the most elegant and sophisticated florist’s to market stalls where the blooms stand in plastic buckets. Those working in flower shops take genuine pride in their ability to produce stunning arrangements, and to fashion bows and wrapping with true dexterity while one watches. Having discovered a particular favourite shop, I frequently leave the choice of flowers and complementary greenery to the florist: I simply state for whom the bouquet is intended (daughter’s birthday, 85-year-old friend’s name-day – male – and so on), and an approximate price, sure that the completed creation will perfectly befit the occasion.
Yet, in spite of all admiration for their adroit and creative work, I find it difficult to forgive the annual exploitation of the beautiful old St. Valentine’s Day tradition.
By Marion Merrick published on XpatLoop.com with the permission of Budapest Then And Now
She is the author of two books on Hungary, available at Bestsellers, and her web page can be reached by clicking here