From the country that gave us Romeo and Juliet, famous novels like “I Promessi Sposi”, and romantic gondola rides, there’s no doubt that Italy is THE country for lovers. Even the Italian language, which is so expressive and precise in thought and emotion, is considered one of the most romantic and beautiful of all languages. So how do Italians celebrate Saint Valentine’s Day? Logic would say that Valentine’s Day is a huge celebration, right? Italy does take its celebrations seriously, but current-day celebrations are not as extensive as you would think. Let’s look at the history of Saint Valentine’s Day, or “La Festa Degli Innamorati” in Italy:
Ancient Traditions The origins of Valentine’s Day lie in ancient Pagan fertility day celebrations. In 494 AD, Pope Gelasio I declared a Valentine Day celebration in honor of Saint Valentine to replace the Pagan festival, and the original Saint Valentine’s festivities were celebrated as a spring festival where lovers would gather outside in gardens or parks to listen to music and exchange poetry. One ancient tradition is for an unmarried girl to wake up early and stand by her window. Legend has it that the first man she sees that day will marry her within a year.
Today’s Traditions Present-day Valentine’s celebrations are more commercialized than in centuries past, and many Italians consider it an American import. On this day, the exchange of gifts is usually only between lovers. Usually a couple will go out to dinner, or prepare a nice candlelit dinner at home. A popular gift is the Baci Perugina chocolate-covered hazelnut with a romantic poetic quote in 4 different languages hidden inside. And that is basically the extent of Valentine’s Day celebrations in Italy. But if you’ve traveled in Italy in the past few years, you’ve probably noticed lucchetti, or padlocks, attached to bridges, railing, and lampposts. While not an Italian invention, this “locks of love” tradition started in Italy in 2006 when novelist and screen writer Federico Moccia wrote a best-selling book called Ho voglio di te (I want you), followed by a movie by the same name. The story, about a pair of young Romans, includes a lie: the hero tells the young lady he desires of a legend (invented by him) in which lovers wrap a chain around the third lamppost on the north side of Rome’s Ponte Milvio bridge (built in 206 BC), lock it, and throw the key into the Tiber River, symbolizing the unbreakable bond uniting them. Between the popularity of the story and the Italian tradition of not being shy about expressing true amore, before long thousands of locks and chains had piled up, and the lamps atop two of the bridge’s lampposts actually crumbled under their weight. City officials who tried to solve the problem were accused – and we all know this is BAD in Italy – of being anti-love: “The left is against lovers,” one rightist city official, Marco Clarke, charged. Finally a compromise was reached and official spots for the locks were built – six sets of steel posts with chains on the bridge – so lovers could declare themselves without damaging the city’s infrastructure. And so the tradition began, and now it has spread throughout the country, with couples writing their names or initials on the locks before affixing them to posts or railings.
In Italy, Saint Valentine’s Day is not about expensive gifts, but instead a day to show someone you care; a day to say “Ti Voglio Bene” (I love you). And isn’t that what Valentine’s Day is supposed to be about, anyway?