In continued observance of the heart this month, I would like to post this week on the history behind Valentine’s Day. It seems that this holiday is rooted in confusion, and came about as the result of one large mistake followed by several transitions. I find this amusing, as well as fitting, since matters of the heart can often be confusing, full of mistakes, and lead to transitions J
In the Beginning
It all started in Rome (as many things do) with an execution in the year 270. Valentine was a holy priest in Rome who refused to renounce his faith and was, therefore, ordered to be beaten with clubs and then beheaded. These orders were executed on February 14th. A church was built in memory of Valentine, and his execution was a remembered event. The festival of Lupercalia, a way of celebrating spring, took place on a fixed date every year (February 15th).
In later years when the early Christians were replacing pagan superstitions and dates with those of the Christian belief, they used martyred saints to substitute old festivals. (This is the “large mistake” I spoke of earlier) St. Valentine was martyred on the 14th of February and the Lupercalia festival took place on the 15th of February. From this moment on, the 14th of February (already connected with Valentine) became associated with the memory of the spring festival where “a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love”.
A Paper Trail
Fast forward to the 14th century. Through poetry, St. Valentine (and his springtime association) is connected with the mating of birds. In the early 1400’s, a series of letters exchanged in the Paston family provided the conduit through which the Valentine association morphed from mating fowl to courting lovers. These letters set the precedent for many songs and ballads to declare that the 14th of February be a day on which to choose a sweetheart. This custom prevailed for the next two centuries.
We learn about the origin of the Valentine card from letters written by Samuel Pepy in the 1600’s. In these letters, he describes how on the morning of Valentine’s Day, he would write his wife’s name extravagantly in gold lettering on blue paper. He presented this to her as a token of his affections.
By the 1800’s, visiting cards had become popular. These cards were elaborately decorated and inscribed with a person’s name. It was customary to go around at the New Year to visit friends and leave these cards with a seasonal greeting written on them. This custom was adapted by lovers. They would create cards in the same manner replacing the seasonal message with an affectionate one, and exchange them at random with their sweetheart.
Being interested in certain aspects of history, I found this evolution of custom to be very entertaining. The book I used to reference most of the facts in this post contains pictures of some of the oldest Valentine cards found in the world. They are absolutely breath-taking. The act of creating a Valentine for someone was a very personal thing in the early part of our history. The Valentines are very ornate, delicate, and beautiful. It is obvious that much time and care was taken to make these tokens by hand. They are so much more personal than what you find at the local greeting card store now. As you contemplate how to celebrate the love in your life (whether it be a sweetheart or a friend; a family member, or even yourself), I encourage you to get back into history and back to your childhood when we made our Valentines from colored paper, glue, and scissors. Consider making a Valentine from “scratch” for someone dear to you. I also recommend checking out the book that was referenced in this post:
The Valentine & Its Origins by Frank Staff
It is available at the Haltom City Public Library.
Until Next Week,
Your Library Blog Maven