A Brief History of Valentine’s Day

This an old piece, done about 15-16 years ago for my employer’s inhouse newsletter. It think it was on their website for a while as well. The original incarnation was for my radio spot on the local NPR affiliate.


The editors of Hallmark Cards report that Christmas is the largest greeting card market, with February 14th, a date well known by both lovers and gangland slaying buffs, coming in a close second. St. Valentine’s day is the day when friends, lovers, and those of similar inclination, show their affection with cards, flowers, and some expressions best left to the imagination.

Saint Valentine’s Day is more accurately Saints Valentine Day, for there are actually a number of Valentines. Early church lists record anywhere from one to eight Saint Valentines. Currently, two canonized martyrs named Valentine are officially commemorated on February 14th. The first Valentine was a priest in Rome who, refusing to renounce his faith, was tortured and beheaded on February 14, circa A.D. 269, part of a systematic persecution by Emperor Claudius II. He was buried on the Flaminian Way, and a basilica had been erected on the location by 350. Meanwhile, 60 miles from Rome in Interamna (now Terni), Valentine, the Bishop of Interamna, met with similar torture, demise, and interment.

Since the Catholic Church is not quite sure how many Valentines there actually were, some hagiographic scholars suggest that Bishop Valentine of Interamna was brought to Rome for his torture and death, and developed multiple followings, including one in Rome and one at Interamna. Others believe that the Interamna martyr was a separate individual whose following adopted the Roman Valentine’s date of February 14 as their festival date. Apparently it was a common practice to commemorate similarly named saints on the same date if one was unsure of the date of the martyr’s suffering, and since Rome dominated the church, their date was the one to which the other cities gravitated. This might partially explain the plethora of Valentines in early lists.

There is no easy connection between the Saint(s) Valentine and people in love. Etymologists report that among medieval lower classes, the letters g and v were spoken interchangeably. The Norman word for “lover” is galantin, which then could also be pronounced valantin, a short step to valentine and the logical association with the saint with the same name. Abetting this association, or because of it, February 14th was believed to be the date upon which birds mated. Even Geoffrey Chaucer, in his Parlement of Foules, mentions this belief.

The most recognizable aspect of the holiday, the Valentine card, can trace its roots to the Roman festival of the Lupercalia, held February 15 in honor of Lupercus, the Roman equivalent of Pan. During this festival, a ceremony was held in honor of the goddess Februata Juno, in which the names of the young women were placed in a box. Each young man drew a name from the box and the subsequent pair were considered a couple for the next year. To Christianize this pagan manner of choosing sweethearts, the names of saints were placed in a box, and each young person chose one, and were to emulate that saint’s virtues for the year. This, needless to say, was not nearly as popular, and the tradition had reverted back to drawing girls’ names by the 14th century. A second attempt to alter the practice in the 16th century by Saint Francis de Sales was equally unsuccessful. The French soon developed the progressive system of having men and women both draw names, and the English added the risky practice of also having as a Valentine the first person the woman saw on St. Valentine’s day. Samuel Pepys chronicled one case of a woman wandering around all day with her eyes closed, avoiding various workmen, waiting for her husband to arrive home.

Charles Duc d’Orleans is credited with being the originator of including poetry in valentine cards. While confined in the Tower of London for being on the wrong side in the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, he sent his wife valentine poems. Sending verses did not catch on immediately, but by the 1660’s, there seem to have been some rhymed love notes circulating as part of Valentine’s day.

Valentine’s day customs were carried to the colonies, but there was little opportunity to practise them in 17th century America. English women were sold to bachelor Virginian colonists, who paid their passage with tobacco, and public displays of affection were criminal offenses in New England. Romance had more of a chance in the 18th century, with the English import of “valentine writers,” booklets of verses which gentlemen could copy onto fancy papers and send as valentines. More importantly, these booklets also supplied rhymed answers which the young lady could also copy and send in response.

The pagan roots of the day made a resurgence as Cupid became a popular symbol of the holiday on commercially produced cards, although no Roman would recognize the little roly-poly cherub as the classic god of love. First produced circa 1800, by 1840, mass-produced valentine cards had reached the level of sophistication they currently enjoy.

So when you drop that valentine in the mail, be forewarned. While you may believe you are merely expressing affection, you are evoking the blessing of Lupercus and Februata Juno, major fertility deities, and Cupid, the god of love. With that sort of firepower behind you, you might want to skip the flowers and chocolates and bring a safety net instead.



About goudsward

Writer of stuff not easily categorized. (Trust me, I got the royalty checks to prove it)
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