By Vivian Molick from the February 2011 Edition
Love is composed of a single soul inhabiting two bodies ~~ Aristotle
Every February 14th candy, flowers and gifts are exchanged between loved ones, all in the name of St. Valentine. Do you know who this mysterious saint was and where this tradition came from? The history of Valentine’s Day, like many legends, seems to be veiled in mystery. The one thing that does not seem to be debated is that it clearly links back to a Catholic priest who was later declared as ‘Saint’ Valentine.
One legend contends that Valentine, as a priest, served during the third century in Rome, during the time of Emperor Claudius II. It is said that Claudius had prohibited marriage for young men, claiming that bachelors made better soldiers. Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to secretly perform marriage ceremonies. When his actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death. It is said he suffered martyrdom on the 14th of February, about the year 270 A.D. After his death, Valentine was declared a “Patron Saint” in 496 A.D by Pope Gelasius.
Another legend states that Valentine was imprisoned by Claudius for his beliefs in Christianity and fell in love with the daughter of his jailer that came to visit him during his confinement. Before his death, it is alleged that he wrote her a letter, which he signed
“From your Valentine”, an expression still used today.
It was the ancient custom in Rome to celebrate the Lupercalia… a fertility celebration commemorated annually on February 15, dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture. During these occasions a ‘lottery’, of sorts, took place where the names of young women were placed in a box and were then drawn by chance by the men and they were to be his partner for the coming year. In an attempt to “Christianize” these celebrations, instead of the pagan god Lupercus, the church looked for a suitable patron saint of love to take his place. They chose St. Valentine and decided to celebrate Valentine’s feast day in the middle of February (the 14th, which is thought to be the day of his death). It was not until the 14th century that the Christian feast day became definitively associated with love. Even though the ‘lottery’ had been banned by the church, the mid-February holiday, in commemoration of St. Valentine, was still used by Roman men to seek the affection of women. It became a tradition for the men to give the ones they admired handwritten messages of affection, containing St. Valentine’s name.
According to UCLA medieval scholar Henry Ansgar Kelly, it was Chaucer who first linked St. Valentine’s Day with romance. In 1381, Chaucer composed a poem in honor of the engagement between England’s Richard II and Anne of Bohemia. As was the poetic tradition, Chaucer associated the occasion with a feast day. In “The Parliament of Fowls” the royal engagement, the mating season of birds, and St.
Valentine’s Day were linked… ‘For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every fowl cometh there to choose his mate’.
By the 18th century in England it was common for friends and lovers in all social classes to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes on Valentine’s Day. The cards were made of lace, ribbons, cupids and hearts. (Cupid— from the Latin cupido, meaning “desire”—was known in Roman mythology as the son of Venus, goddess of love. He is said to be a mischievous boy who goes around shooting gods and humans with his arrows, causing them to fall in love.)
In the 1840s, Esther Howland of Worcester, Massachusetts, followed the English tradition of exchanging cards and started making and selling them through her father’s stationery store. In the first year of her business she sold $5,000 worth of cards, which was a lot of money in that time. The sales were so overwhelming that she had to hire a staff of young women and set up an assembly line in her parents’ home to fill the tremendous sales. These are considered to be the first commercially produced valentines in America and she is known as the ‘Mother of the Valentine’.
Sadly, Valentine’s Day is known, not only for the cards that were sent to loved-ones, but is also the day in 1929 that a savage and bloody event took place, as five Chicago gangsters were lined up and murdered with machine guns, apparently at the order of Al Capone. That became known as the Valentines Day’s Massacre.
In the mid-1980s the commercialization of Valentine’s Day continues and noting the sales effect of the holiday on chocolate, flowers and cards, the diamond industry takes the opportunity to get in on the action by promoting St. Valentine’s Day as a time for giving jewelry. And so, the “tradition” takes off!
According to the Greeting Card Association, an estimated one billion valentines are sent each year (approximately 25% of all cards sent), making it the second largest card-selling holiday of the year (second only to Christmas, in which an estimated 2.6 billion cards are sent). In 2009, Valentine’s Day generated an estimated $14.7 billion in retail sales in the United States. Approximately 85% of all valentines are purchased by women (surprise!).
The oldest known valentine still in existence today was a poem written by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. The greeting, which was written in 1415, is part of the manuscript collection of the British Library in London, England.
In this author’s opinion, the saying, “It’s the thought that counts”, is very true. Yes, the candy, flowers, or jewelry are nice items to receive, but to receive some kind and loving words from someone letting you know how much they care for you is worth much more than any object could convey.
“Age does not protect you from love. But love, to some extent, protects you from age.” ~~Anais Nin