2019 marks the one thousand five hundred twenty third anniversary of the tradition we know as Valentine’s Day. Originally celebrated as part of a Roman festival called Lupercalia, which took place in the middle of February, Lupercalia was a festival that marked the official beginning of spring. Some aspects of the festival were not unlike traditional aspects of Valentine’s Day today. Children of the time would pick names of girls out of a box. The boy and girl he drew from the box became “boyfriend and girlfriend” for the duration of the festival. The holiday became official however when Pope Galesius added Valentine to the official calendar of saints. A fact that’s interesting, albeit somewhat macabre is you can actually view Saint Valentine’s flower-adorned skull on exhibit in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome.
Who was Valentine’s Day named after?
The popular origin story involves a priest of Rome named Valentine in the third century CE (around the year 269). The story goes Emperor Claudius II had issued a formal decree that all marriage be made illegal. Claudius believed that married men made for poor soldiers. Valentine broke the law and performed weddings for many soldiers in secret, often giving parchments cut in the shape of hearts to “remind these men of their vows to each other’s and God’s love. However, he was soon thrown in jail and sentenced to death when Claudius discovered what Valentine was up to. The story continues with Valentine falling in love while in jail with the jailer’s daughter. On February 14th, as the tale goes, Valentine was taken away to be killed but before his death he sent a love letter to his beloved and signed in “from your Valentine”. Saint Valentine was purported to be adorning a bright purple amethyst ring engraved with a detailed, embossed image of Cupid, a symbol of love in the Roman Empire. Today, amethysts are the official birthstone of February and is considered a stone that has the power to attract love.
The detailed account of Valentine’s divinity has Claudius II interrogating Valentine in person, attempting to convert him to Roman Paganism. However, Valentine attempted instead to convert Emperor Claudius to Christianity and for that he was put to death. Before Valentine’s execution he performed a miracle by healing the blind daughter of the jailer and in turn the jailer and his family converted to Christianity and soon after were baptized. In the 14th century, the writings of famed poet and author Geoffrey Chaucer connected the day with romantic love with his ode in honor of the first anniversary of the engagement of the King of England, Richard II to Anne of Bohemia:
“For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to cheses his make”.
During this time, roughly about the year 1381, the Julian calendar was being used to keep track of dates. When the calendar was changed to the more accurate Gregorian calendar a couple of hundred years later, February 14th would have been moved to February 23rd, making Valentine’s Day “skip ahead” 9 days. However, the date of the 14th was ultimately retained. Charles, Duke of Orleans is credited as having written the oldest known valentine note, written to his wife sometime around 1415. It goes:
“Je suis desja d’amour tanné,
Ma tres doulce Valentinée,
Car pour moi fustes trop tart née,
Et moy pour vous fus trop tost né.
Dieu lui pardoint qui estrené
M’a de vous, pour toute l’année.
Je suis desja d’amour tanné,
Ma tres doulce Valentinée.”
“I am already sick of love,
My very gentle Valentine,
Since for me you were born too late,
And I for you was born too soon.
God forgives him who has estranged
Me from you for the whole year.
I am already sick of love,
My very gentle Valentine.”
How was Valentine’s Day Celebrated in the Past?
In the UK, by the 18th century participants celebrating the day sent flowers, sweets and even custom greeting cards to the objects of their affection. By the century’s end Valentine’s Day was seen to be marketed, with guides like “The Young Man’s Valentine Writer” being sold, containing numerous sentimental verses intended for those young lovers who were unskilled in composing those of his own. Paper Valentines became immensely popular in England during this time and were manufactured in factories. By the mid-19th century, a young man or woman looking for elegant, ornamental Valentines made of real, flowing lace with ribbons could be purchased, personalized and even delivered by hand. In the US, similar Valentines made of embossed paper and lace were widely produced and sold by Esther Howland of Massachusetts.
How is Valentine’s Day Celebrated Today?
From that time to the present day, the way Valentine’s Day has been celebrated has seen accelerated growth, expanding and encroaching upon virtually all aspects of culture and personal life. Companies like Cadbury have become famous from selling fancy, lace adorned boxes shaped like hearts of chocolates. The flower industry has “blossomed”, with many boutiques depending heavily on flowers sales, of such popular Valentine’s Day flowers such as red roses. Greeting cards companies like American Greetings sell millions of themed cards every year with many other companies offering personalized Valentine’s Day cards and specials online. Treats other than chocolate are big now also with several companies selling baskets of muffins, cupcakes, hard candies and more. Modern music is filled with Valentine’s Day themes and stories and countless shows on TV and in movies feature or are centered around the holiday. Churches have even gotten more into the spirit of celebrating the day in recent times as many feature specialized services like a rite intended to renew a couple’s vows of marriage and in 2016, Bishops of England and Wales created a novena prayer which is an “ancient tradition of devotional praying in Christianity, consisting of private or public prayers repeated for nine successive days or weeks.”
Many countries across the globe now celebrate the day with cards written in dozens of languages for sell all across Europe, the Americas, Asia and Africa. In the US alone, the amount spent on Valentine’s Day items has increased more than 30% annually over the past ten years alone. Hundreds of millions of people the world over celebrate Valentine’s Day each year with cards, flowers, treats, dinners and spending time together privately or by themselves and it seems it’s just getting more popular. There’s no telling what Saint Valentine would say if he saw what his actions and subsequent canonization would result in, but hopefully he would be happy to see so many openly able to celebrate the love and adoration they feel for their significant other. Like many others, February 14th might just have been Saint Valentine’s favorite holiday.
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