Each year on February 14th, many people exchange cards, chocolates, gifts, or flowers with their special “valentine.” The day of romance we call Valentine’s Day is named for a Christian martyr and dates back to the 5th century, but has origins in the Roman holiday Lupercalia.
Here’s a bit of its history:
While not thought to be directly related to modern Valentine’s Day traditions, the beginnings of celebrating love (of a sort) in February date back to the Romans. The feast of Lupercalia was a pagan fertility and health festival, observed from February 13th through the 15th, that was celebrated at least as far back as 44 BCE (the year Julius Caesar was assassinated). Some historians believe it goes back even further, though with possibly a different name.
Connected to the Roman god Lupercus, (the equivalent to the Greek god Pan), the festival was originally supposed to be about shepherds and bringing health and fertility to their sheep and cows. When it became more ingrained into Roman culture, it additionally celebrated Lupa (also another possible reason it is named what it is), the she-wolf who nursed the legendary founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, to health. Religious offerings happened at the cave on Palatine Hill, the place where Rome was thought to be founded.
The ceremonies were filled with animal sacrifices, the wearing of goat skins, and nudity. Priests would lead sacrifices of goats and young dogs, animals who were thought to have a “strong sexual instinct.” Afterwards, a feast would occur with lots of wine flowing. When everyone was fat and happy, the men would shed their clothes, drape the goat skins from the earlier sacrifice on their naked bodies, and run around the city striking naked women.
However, in the fifth century, Pope Hilary tried to get the festival banned due to it being a pagan ritual and unchristian. At the end of the fifth century (appx 496 AD), Pope Gelasius did end up banning it. In a long letter sent to all Roman nobility who wanted the festival to continue, he stated, “If you assert that this rite has salutary force, celebrate it yourselves in the ancestral fashion; run nude yourselves that you may properly carry out the mockery.”
Pope Gelasius also established a much more Christian celebration and declared it would be honoured on February 14th – a feast in which St. Valentine would be the patron saint.
St. Valentine’s Day as a religious festival, began as a liturgical celebration of one or more early Christian saints named Valentinus.
Several martyrdom stories were invented for the various Valentines that belonged to February 14, and added to later martyrologies.
A popular hagiographical account of Saint Valentine of Rome states that he was imprisoned for performing weddings for soldiers who were forbidden to marry and for ministering to Christians, who, at that time, were persecuted under the Roman Empire.
According to legend, during his imprisonment, he healed the daughter of his jailer, Asterius. An embellishment to this story states that before his execution he wrote her a letter signed “Your Valentine” as a farewell.
Today, Saint Valentine’s Day is an official feast day in the Anglican Communion, as well as in the Lutheran Church.
The Eastern Orthodox Church also celebrates Saint Valentine’s Day, albeit on July 6 and July 30, the former date in honour of the Roman presbyter Saint Valentine, and the latter date in honour of Hieromartyr Valentine, the Bishop of Interamna (modern Terni).
In Brazil, the Dia de São Valentim is recognised on June 12.
So what about the more recent direct genesis of Valentine’s Day?
This began with Geoffrey Chaucer, writer of The Canterbury Tales.
He also wrote other things, such as a 700 line poem in 1382 called the “Parliament of Foules,” written in honour of the first anniversary of King Richard II of England and Anne of Bohemia’s engagement. This poem is generally considered to include the first explicit Valentine’s Day / love connection ever written, with one of the lines reading (translated to modern English),
“For this was Saint Valentine’s day, when every bird of every kind that men can imagine comes to this place to choose his mate.”
While some scholars believed Chaucer invented the Valentine’s Day / love connection that was previously not mentioned in any writings that have survived to this day, it may well have been that he simply helped popularise the idea.
Over a century later, Shakespeare was writing about Valentine’s Day in, among other works, Hamlet, with this line spoken (or sung) by Ophelia once she had gone mad,
“To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.
Then up he rose, and donn’d his clothes,
And dupp’d the chamber-door;
Let in the maid, that out a maid
Never departed more.”
—William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 5
The verse “Roses are red” echoes conventions traceable as far back as Edmund Spenser’s epic The Faerie Queene:
“She bath’d with roses red, and violets blew,
And all the sweetest flowres, that in the forrest grew.”
The modern cliché Valentine’s Day poem can be found in the collection of English nursery rhymes Gammer Gurton’s Garland (1784):
“The rose is red, the violet’s blue,
The honey’s sweet, and so are you.
Thou art my love and I am thine;
I drew thee to my Valentine:
The lot was cast and then I drew,
And Fortune said it shou’d be you.”
There are also some remaining associations connecting the saint with the advent of spring.
While the custom of sending cards, flowers, chocolates and other gifts originated in the UK, Valentine’s Day still remains connected with various regional customs in England. In Norfolk, a character called ‘Jack’ Valentine knocks on the rear door of houses leaving sweets and presents for children. Although he was leaving treats, many children were scared of this mystical person.
In Slovenia, Saint Valentine or Zdravko was one of the saints of spring, the saint of good health and the patron of beekeepers and pilgrims. A proverb says that “Saint Valentine brings the keys of roots”.
Plants and flowers start to grow on this day. It has been celebrated as the day when the first work in the vineyards and in the fields commences. It is also said that birds propose to each other or marry on that day. Another proverb says “Valentin – prvi spomladin” (“Valentine — the first spring saint”), as in some places (especially White Carniola), Saint Valentine marks the beginning of spring.
In 1797, a British publisher issued The Young Man’s Valentine Writer, which contained scores of suggested sentimental verses for the young lover unable to compose his own. Printers had already begun producing a limited number of cards with verses and sketches, called “mechanical valentines,” and a reduction in postal rates in the next century ushered in the less personal but easier practice of mailing Valentines. That, in turn, made it possible for the first time to exchange cards anonymously, which is taken as the reason for the sudden appearance of racy verse in an era otherwise prudishly Victorian.
Paper Valentines became so popular in England in the early 19th century that they were assembled in factories. Fancy Valentines were made with real lace and ribbons, with paper lace introduced in the mid-19th century. In 1835, 60,000 Valentine cards were sent by post in Britain, despite postage being expensive. The Laura Seddon Greeting Card Collection at Manchester Metropolitan University gathers 450 Valentine’s Day cards dating from the early nineteenth century, printed by the major publishers of the day.
In the United States, the first mass-produced valentines of embossed paper lace were produced and sold shortly after 1847 by Esther Howland (1828–1904) of Worcester, Massachusetts. Her father operated a large book and stationery store, but Howland took her inspiration from an English Valentine she had received from a business associate of her father. Intrigued with the idea of making similar Valentines, Howland began her business by importing paper lace and floral decorations from England.
Since then, the holiday has steadily grown to today when it is an absolute marketing and money making machine (second only to Christmas in money spent by consumers). Further, according to the Greeting Card Association, more than 25% of all cards sent each year are Valentine’s Day cards, about one billion cards each year. In the 1980s, the diamond industry decided it wanted its cut and began running marketing campaigns promoting Valentine’s Day as a day to give jewellery to show you really loved someone, instead of just sending cards and chocolates; this was obviously a very successful campaign.
The rise of Internet popularity at the turn of the millennium is creating new traditions. Millions of people use, every year, digital means of creating and sending Valentine’s Day greeting messages such as e-cards, love coupons or printable greeting cards. An estimated 15 million e-valentines were sent in 2010. Valentine’s Day is considered by some to be a Hallmark holiday due to its commercialisation.
In the modern era, liturgically, the Anglican Church has a service for St. Valentine’s Day (the Feast of St. Valentine), which includes the optional rite of the renewal of marriage vows.
This Valentine’s Day, when you have your hands full of roses, chocolates, and Hallmark Cards for your Valentine, you’ll know who to thank – Pope Gelasius banning a naked, drunk pagan ritual, the beheading of a guy for supposedly marrying people, Geoffrey Chaucer and his Parliament of Foules, deBeers and the like, and some very clever marketing!
So, now you know the history behind it!
What are your views on Valentine’s Day? A commercialist bunch of hooey, or a worthy celebration?
We have plenty of Valentines Day Acts to make your hearts flutter
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