Valentine’s Day: Language of flowers got lost in translation

Saturday February 12 2011

Red is the theme of all merchandise sold in connection with Valentine’s Day. Intense commercialisation has taken away the romance associated with the day. Photo/PHOEBE OKALL

February is without a doubt the month of love, going by the chocolates, cards, gifts, red roses and special dinners all centred around one day, Valentine’s Day, marked on February 14.

Romantics around the world yearn for this day, and plan for a beautiful evening of softly lit wining and dining, or something equally romantic.

Others however, roundly dismiss Valentine’s Day as superficial, consumerist Western kitsch that makes new couples anxious, old ones stressed, and singles depressed.

Love traditions vary around the world, as do attitudes about Valentine’s Day.

In fact, most people in East Africa would argue that there is no love or romance about Valentine’s Day, just money and commerce.

For example, last year, Saudi police released a strongly worded statement prohibiting stores from selling items that are red, heart-shaped or otherwise related to Valentine’s Day, which is banned in that country.


The giving of flowers is central to Valentine’s Day, and red roses in particular are synonymous with love and Valentine.

In the 1600s, a language of flowers developed in Constantinople and in the poetry of Persia.

Charles II of England introduced this Persian poetry to Europe, and English aristocrat and writer Lady Mary Wortley Montagu brought the language of flower from Turkey to England in 1716.

It spread to France and became a handbook of 800 floral messages known as Le Langage de Fleurs, or the language of flowers.

Lovers exchanged messages as they gave each other selected flowers or bouquets: when one could not voice feelings openly, they could choose to say it with a flower.

Throughout the 18th century, floral lexicons were published, allowing secrets to be exchanged with a lily or tulip, and entire conversations to take place in a bouquet of flowers.

A full red rose meant beauty. Red and white meant unity. Crocus said, “Do not abuse me,” while a white rosebud warned that one was too young for love.

Yellow roses were for jealousy, the yellow iris for passion, the filbert for reconciliation and ivy for marriage.

These nuances of flower language were watered down with time, and certainly by the time the exchange of flowers was catching on in East Africa, the subtleties of flower language, and its significance, had been lost in translation.

Perhaps the reason why this practice has been dismissed as a “Western import” is that the exchange of flowers as a sign of love did not spread concomitantly with the reason behind the practice, which is this tradition of flower language.

Roses have however endured as the traditional flower of love and Valentine’s Day.

East Africa, like the rest of the world, has been caught up in the intense commercialisation of Valentine’s Day: sales of cut flowers spike on this day, as do sales of love message cards, chocolates, wine and travel packages.

Still, attitudes toward Valentine’s Day vary across the region, as do local cultures of giving flowers.

But what is the attitude of East Africans towards the giving of flowers in general as a symbol of love?

Kenya presents an interesting irony. The country is one of the world’s top exporters of cut flowers, and the horticulture industry is consistently among the top of the country’s foreign exchange earners, bringing in $1.3 billion in 2009.

Yet come Valentine’s Day, Kenyan men won’t be caught dead carrying flowers in public, lest they be ridiculed.

There is a general aversion to public displays of affection. A man therefore has two options if he intends to give flowers to his significant other: Have the flowers wrapped in a newspaper if he has to carry them himself, or pay a courier to deliver them to his love interest.

Tanzanians and Rwandans on the other hand have a reputation of being openly romantic.

Nancy, 25, a Kenyan living in Tanzania speaks on the attitude of men in Tanzania towards flowers and love in general: “Men here are quite romantic, they are always ‘lovey dovey’, so on Valentine’s the culture is to treat your woman even more like a queen; a girl will get red roses, a card and gifts as a show of love. In Tanzania, the men are not shy at all, they wouldn’t dream of wrapping the roses in a newspaper, as I see happening back home in Kenya.”

Ugandan men like to give money as a sign of love as opposed to cards, flowers or gifts.

“At the end of a successful date,” says Juanita, a 26-year-old Ugandan, “a man will give the girl money to buy herself something nice, or to do her hair, or for airtime to call him. Giving flowers is also fairly common, but a girl will probably appreciate money more, because she has more options on what to do with it.”

The origins of Valentine’s Day can be traced to the Roman Empire.

The Catholic Church recognises at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom were martyred.

One legend contends that Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome during the reign of Emperor Claudius II in the third century AD.

Claudius was frustrated in his efforts to expand the Roman army because nobody wanted to volunteer — very few were willing to leave their wives and families for months or years of military expeditions or even death.

Finally, Claudius ran out of patience and used his powers as emperor to ban engagements and marriages in Rome.

He fiendishly reasoned that if the men couldn’t get married, it would be easier to get them to commit to army life.

Young people were outraged and continued getting married in secret, providing they could find a willing priest.

Valentine was one of a few who supported them. He met with couples in private rooms where they would exchange vows in hushed tones, always fearful of discovery.

Finally, Valentine was found out and hauled before the Prefect of Rome who condemned him to death.

As he awaited execution, his admirers would come to the jail with flowers and notes of support.

Legend has it that Valentine sent a friend, who happened to be the jailer’s daughter, a final note signed “From Your Valentine” before he was executed on February 14 in 269 A.D.

Ironically, Claudius had executed Valentine on the holiday that honoured Juno, the Roman goddess of women and marriage.

This ancient pagan fertility celebration was held on February 14, the day before the feast began.

During festival time, women would write love letters, also known as billets, and leave them in a large urn.

The men of Rome would then draw a note from the urn and ardently pursue the woman who wrote the message they had chosen.

Early Christians were happier with the idea of a holiday honouring the saint of romantic causes than with one recognizing a pagan festival, so in 496 A.D., Pope Gelasius named February 14 in honour of St. Valentine as the patron saint of lovers.