Given the sexually charged erotic atmosphere of Cuba on an average day, perhaps Valentine’s Day is unnecessary—an excessive indulgence in a country which needs little excuse for romantic courtship at any time of day. Nonetheless, February 14 has assumed increasing prominence over the years and is the day when lovers need to be packed away as girlfriends and wives take center stage.
It was an ancient custom to worship the God of Love—Eros for the Greeks, Cupid for the Romans— to dedicate offerings and gifts, and to seek their help in finding the perfect match. Although commemorating St. Valentine’s Day has its source in Anglo-Saxon tradition, the legend goes that around the 3rd century, the priest Valentine of Rome performed marriage ceremonies despite the orders of Emperor Claudius that young men remain single in order to expand his army, believing that married men did not make for good soldiers. Valentine defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When his actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be taken prisoner and thrown in jail. Further embellishment of the legend has it that while in prison, he fell in love, supposedly, with his jailer’s daughter and sent the first “valentine” card himself, appropriately signing it “From your Valentine,” an expression that is still in use today.
In Great Britain, Valentine’s Day began to be celebrated around the 17th century and by the middle of the 18th century, friends and lovers in all social classes were exchanging small tokens of affection or notes or cards known as valentines. This practice began to expand to other countries, with their own particular features. Valentine’s Day was adopted in Latin American countries in the early 20th century and greeting cards became just as popular as in the United States. According to Cuban patriot and poet José Martí, who lived many years in New York, these cards were made “of fine Bristol lined with lace or trimmings…there are angels, lovers, wild flower bouquets: lilies, daisies or sunflowers that are in fashion now because they are the flowers of the esthetes.”
In time, Valentine’s Day, or Lover’s Day, as it is known in Cuba, has become Day of Love and Friendship. Although, this is mostly a grand celebration of romantic love between two people, the love and affection for friends, family and acquaintances is also celebrated on this day. When February 14 draws near, many men and women of all ages buy postcards for the people of their affection. For lovers, however, expressing their love through postcards is not enough, and roses and chocolates, which were added to the practice of exchanging cards in the second half of the 20th century, are material tokens of appreciation on this day. Gifts may range from modest to expensive, perfumes and jewelry being perhaps the most popular gifts for the ladies while a bottle of good rum never fails with the gents. This day is also chosen by many Cubans to give their sweethearts their engagement rings and some even choose it as their wedding day.
Other couples in Cuba prefer to celebrate Valentine’s Day by having a night on the town, whether at theaters, movie houses or restaurants, which are most likely to have special Valentine’s Day offers. However, there is one place that is free and open to all, and that is the Malecón. The famous seawall fills with lovers who enjoy the simple and unique pleasure of being together, remembering the past or dreaming of the future, under the starry sky of this Caribbean land.
Victoria Alcalá writes about Cuban culture. She has won several prestigious writing awards.