As Valentine’s Day approaches the rush to get the perfect gift consumes so many people, but a lot of the time not much planning is put into the day. While there are those “romantics” out there, more and more people are treating this day as is it is an obligation and not a day of reflection or affection. Each year on February 14th, many people exchange cards, candy, gifts or flowers with their special “valentine.” Some people get engaged or married. The day of romance we call Valentine’s Day is named for a Christian martyr and dates back to the 5th century, but has origins in the Roman holiday Lupercalia.
As controversial as the origins of the holiday may be to some, what the day has evolved into is something completely different. So, let us decompress the centuries’ long celebration from origin to present day practices.
The beginnings and reasons for Valentine’s Day are many and varied. The day seems to have its origins in third century Rome, when the god Lupercus protected flocks of sheep from wolves in the hills around the city. In appreciation, the Romans celebrated the feast of Lupercalia in February, and it was a popular celebration.
Christianity created St. Valentine’s Day to replace this pagan festival. There were several priests or holy men named Valentine, and their individual deeds and martyrdoms were combined to create one Saint Valentine with his feast day on Feb. 14. One story of Valentine relates that he was a popular priest at the time of the cruel Emperor Claudius. When the emperor tried to recruit soldiers he met opposition. Men did not want to leave their wives and sweethearts, which angered Claudius, who then decreed that no more marriages or engagements could take place. The priest Valentine took pity on young lovers, and secretly performed marriages. When Claudius learned about this he was enraged and threw Valentine into prison, where he died. Another legend continues this story, saying that Valentine fell in love with the jailer’s daughter and wrote her letters signed, “Love From your Valentine.”
Gradually, the religious aspects faded and the holiday turned into a time to send love messages, and Saint Valentine became the patron saint of lovers. In many old European traditions, Feb. 14 is the day that birds begin to choose their mates. Chaucer mentioned this belief, and Shakespeare and other writers have referred to Valentine’s Day as a fateful day for romances to begin or for lovers to express their feelings.
The earliest sent valentines date from the 1400’s. These were handwritten love notes or poems, sometimes anonymous, sent to the object of one’s affection. The custom of sending and receiving Valentines continued through the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Symbols that are still recognized began to be used, such as cupid and his arrows, hearts, flowers, and birds. The first printed valentines for sale appeared about 1800, and were immediately successful. Turtledoves, lover’s knots and bleeding hearts were popular additions to the existing symbols of love. Nineteenth century valentines became increasingly elaborate, with embossed papers, ribbons and fabric enhancing the cards.
Among the first to commercially produce valentines in the United States was Miss Esther Howland. Her father was a stationer in Worcester, Massachusetts. Esther saw a need for valentines, and as a result became one of America’s early business women. Around 1830, she began to import lace, papers and other supplies from England for her business, and she made valentines and wrote verses for them. Her brothers marketed the “Worcester” valentines. Esther Howland’s business was a great success, she employed several people, and sales amounted to about $100,000 annually.
Valentines were very popular through the Civil War, and became increasingly elaborate through the later 19th century. Comic valentines also became popular, taking advantage of chromolithography, which produced colorful, cheap and funny cards. The first and second World Wars revived the tradition of valentines in Europe, and increased the already existing enthusiasm in the United States. Since the 1950s, Valentine’s Day is second only to Christmas in its importance in the greeting card industry, and shows no signs of slowing down. Adults and children purchase and make valentines to send to friends, family and of course to their sweethearts. Elementary school classrooms continue to have decorated “mailboxes” for valentine cards, usually sent anonymously.
The spirit of Saint Valentine is still prevalent, and the day remains an opportunity to send a message of love or friendship in a card that is romantic or funny. Valentine’s Day has a long tradition to be shared and enjoyed by all ages.
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