Is Valentine's Day a Real "Holyday"? A history of Valentine's Day.

A History of Valentine's Day.

It seems to be a commonly held believe that Valentine's Day is a made up holiday, created by Corporate America to bilk consumers out of money in the dead holiday zone between Christmas and Easter. While it is obvious that marketers have assuredly hyped February 14th to a level of manufactured frenzy, Valentine's Day is indeed an ancient tradition that celebrated many things, most recently romantic love.

Established by Pope Gelasius I in 496 AD, it was a date to honor several early Christian martyrs* named Valentine. This was possibly a move to continue the Church's attempt to convert pagan celebrations and holidays to Christian events, Gelasius went on a campaign to eradicate the ancient Roman festival of the Lupercalia, a fertility and purification festival associated with their God Lupercus. Interestingly enough, the Romans themselves had absconded with the holiday because prior to that it was a pre-Roman pastoral festival called Februa (Latin: dies februatus, from februare, "to purify") that was observed from February 13th through the 15th. This is where the month of February gets its name.

The Feast Day of St. Valentine, as it was called by the Roman Catholic Calendar of Saints**, is observed by the Catholic Church on February 14th. Within the Church it had no associations with romantic love, romance, hearts, cupids or other modern trappings of February 14th, it was simply a day to honor Saints with the name of Valentine.*

Our modern concept of Valentine's Day most likely became associated with love and romance sometime during the Middles Ages period of courtly love. Some say it can be directly linked to a poem supposedly finished by Geoffrey Chaucer just prior to February 14th, 1383 and called "Parlement of Foules" which guides Cicero through "celestial spheres to Venus temple" to a "parliament at which the birds all choose their mates". The poem was written to honor the first anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia, thus giving it more associations with love.

During the early Middle Ages courtly love was the bar scene of the day. Romantic intrigues flourished amid the high courts, sexual escapes were the playground of the elite and "love" was rampant. The hi-jinks had become so prolific that in 1400, on Valentine's Day, a High Court of Love was instituted in the Paris courts which established laws for the ritual of courtly love that dealt with love contracts, betrayals, and violence against women. Love and Valentine's Day were now "institutionalized".

There are many historical references to Valentine's Day including this speech by Ophelia in Hamlet:

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 (1600)

The beginning of sending written Valentines had it's start when young Roman men would send handwritten missives of love to their intended during the festival of Lupercalia (mentioned above). The earliest known Valentine Card was one sent in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was a prisoner in the Tower of London.

In 1797 "The Young Man’s Valentine Writer" was published in Britain which gave romantically challenged males stock love poems to send to their beloved. Printers started to produce "mechanical Valentines" - non-handwritten - and by the 1800's printed paper Valentine cards were being mass produced in factories throughout Europe.

In the United States the first mass-produced Valentines, made of embossed paper lace, were produced in 1847 by Esther Howland (1828-1904) of Worcester, Massachusetts. Because she is given credit for creating the first modern day Valentine's Card, the Greeting Card Association has been giving an annual "Esther Howland Award for a Greeting Card Visionary." since 2001.

(Pardon my corny bad Olde English.)

Cupid*** was the ancient Roman god of erotic love and beauty, son of Venus, the goddess of love, and Mercury, the messenger, hence he became known as the "messenger of love". Cupid was also known as Eros (interestingly an anagram for "rose") in Greek mythology and was usually depicted with wings, a bow and quiver of arrows, often nude and sometimes as a child. Classical paintings have depicted Saint Valentine with cherubs as well. Both of these might have attributed to the emergence of our modern day Cupid as a fat little toddler who aims for the heart.

As for the heart, this organ has long been associated with love, people in ancient times thought the soul resided in the heart. Aristotle stated that the heart was the center of all emotions. The heart beats faster when we are in the presence of a lover - at least in the early stages of courtship. Many of us can actually feel sensation in the chest area during times of emotional stress. But the problem is the heart inside our body does not look like those little red and pink hearts on Valentines and there in lies the mystery.

Glenn Church makes some interesting conjecture regarding the Origins of the Valentine's Day Heart Symbol: , but there is no real historical trail that leads us to the present day heart shape. Oh, sweet mystery of love. . . .and hearts, we may never know where this heart symbol came from.

Ribbon and lace imagery most likely stems from the Middle Ages and the practice of a Lady giving her scarf to the Knight she wishes to win during a jousting tournament. Most of these were silk and lace.

Sometime during the last half of the 20th Century we began to attribute Valentine's Day with additional gifts of chocolates and flowers - traditionally a dozen red roses. Around the late 1970s the diamond industry got in on the act and started to promote engagement rings, which then extended to any type of jewelry, particularly heart shaped and containing red colored gemstones. I suspect all of these associations were generated by modern marketing practices as there is no historical reference to them in any of the research I've done.

Today we have taken Valentine's Day digital with Valentine e-cards and online Valentine Gift websites.

Who knows, maybe in the future we'll be sending Valentine holograms from outer space. One thing is for sure, with the commercialization of Valentine's Day, originally a pagan festival celebrating fertility and purification, hearts and flowers and Cupid will probably be around as long as love survives.


* Valentine of Rome and Valentine of Terni.

**The feastday of Saint Valentine on February 14 was removed from the General Roman Calendar and relegated to local or national calendars. "Though the memorial of Saint Valentine is ancient, it is left to particular calendars, since, apart from his name, nothing is known of Saint Valentine except that he was buried on the Via Flaminia on February 14."

*** Cupid, son of Venus and Mercury, married Psyche (soul) and fathered a daughter called Voluptas, or Hedone (pleasure).


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