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Do You Know the History of Valentine's Day?

Here's a history of Valentine's Day as told by the Medfield Historical Society.

 

Do You Know the Origins of Valentine's Day?

Every February 14, across the United States and in many places around the world, loved ones exchange candy, flowers, gifts, and especially, cards, all in the name of St. Valentine. But who is this mysterious saint, and where did our present-day traditions come from?

The history of Valentine's Day--and the story of its patron saint-- is shrouded in mystery. We do know that February has long been celebrated as a month of romance, and that St. Valentine's Day, as we know it today, contains vestiges of both Christian and ancient Roman tradition. But who was Saint Valentine, and how did he become associated with this ancient rite? The legends are numerous. 

St. Valentine

The most commonly accepted story begins in Rome during the third century, at a time when persecution of Christians was running rampant. Valentine was a priest near Rome whose ministry was to help the Christians escape this persecution, and to provide them the sacraments, such as marriage. Allegedly, Valentine was imprisoned either for ministering to Christians by helping them escape harsh Roman prisons, where they were often beaten and tortured, or for performing clandestine Christian weddings for soldiers who were forbidden by Emperor Claudius II to marry because he believed single men made better soldiers--or perhaps both.

To "remind them of God's love and to encourage them to remain faithful Christians," Saint Valentine is said to have cut hearts from parchment, giving them to persecuted Christians and soldiers, a possible origin of the widespread use of hearts on Saint Valentine's Day.

While in prison, Valentine allegedly helped heal Julia, the blind daughter of his jailer Asterius. Before his execution, he sent her a note signed "From your Valentine," an expression still in use today. According to this legend, he was martyred for refusing to renounce his religion and his sentence was carried out on February 14, 270 AD. 

The Catholic Church recognizes at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom were martyred--one a priest in Rome, the second a bishop in Terni, Italy, and a third who met his end in Africa. Surprisingly, all three of them were said to have been martyred on February 14th.  

The Festival of the Lupercalia

So while many believe that Valentine's Day is observed in honor of Valentine's martyrdom, others claim that the Christian church placed St. Valentine's Day in the middle of February in an effort to "Christianize" the pagan celebration of Lupercalia, a fertility festival that occurred on February 15th. 

This celebration was a gathering of Roman priests, the order of Luperci, at a cave believed to be where the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, were cared for by a she-wolf while infants. The priests would slaughter a goat and a dog representing fertility and purification. The goat's hide was cut into strips, dunked into blood, slapped against woman's backs and then laid in the planting fields. Far from feeling frightened, Roman women welcomed this event because it was believed to make them more fertile in the coming year. After this ceremony, young women would place their names in a vessel and the bachelors of the area would select a name. These couples would be paired for the year, which frequently led to marriage.

Valentine's Day--A Day for Romance

While Lupercalia survived the initial rise of Christianity, in the 5th century Pope Gelasius officially outlawed it and declared February 14th St. Valentine's Day. Still, it was not a day for lovers--that would come later.

By the middle ages people from France and England believed bird mating season started February 14th. In 1392 renowned English poet Geoffrey Chauser wrote a poem for lovebirds entitled "The Parliament of Fowls," which states, "For this was on Saint Valentine's Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate." This was probably the first written association of romantic love and Valentine's Day.

In 1415, Charles, Duke of Orleans, was captured at the battle of Agincourt and imprisoned in the Tower of London where he wrote the first known Valentine (located in the manuscript collection at the British Library in London ) to his wife as a poem. Sometime after Charles's poem, King Henry V is believed to have hired John Lydgate, a writer, to compose a valentine for his lovely wife Catherine of Valois.

Valentine's Day Today

In Great Britain, Valentine's Day began to be popularly celebrated around the 17th century. By the middle of the 18th century people of all classes were exchanging gifts of affection, written notes and handmade cards. Paper Valentines became so popular in England in the early 19th century that they were assembled in factories. Fancy Valentines were made with real lace and ribbons, with paper lace introduced in the mid-19th century. 

Americans probably began exchanging hand-made Valentines in the early 1700s. In the 1840s Esther A. Howland (1828-1904) received an ornate Valentine card from England, which inspired her to make similar Valentines. She began her business importing paper lace and floral decorations from England through her father, who operated the largest book and stationery store in Worcester. Her brother took twelve samples she had created on his next sales trip and came back with $5,000 in orders. 

Elated with the demand for her cards, Howland, known as "Mother of the American Valentine,"began mass-producing elaborate Valentine cards in Worcester, Massachusetts, forming her own company called the New England Valentine Company. Esther is attributed with developing two innovative Valentine card designs: placing white paper lace over a colored wafer paper to give contrast and a shadow box design. 

It was when Howland began producing Valentine's cards on a large scale that the tradition really caught on in the United States. Norcross, today known as Hallmark, jumped on the bandwagon and began to manufacture Valentine's Day cards in the early 1900s. February has never been the same! (Visit Worcester History Museum's Love and Lace Exhibit to see the work of Esther Howland.)

Today, Valentine's Day is celebrated not only in the United States but in England, Mexico, Canada, France, and Australia. According to the US Greeting Card Association, over one billion Valentines are sent every year, which makes it the second largest card giving time with Christmas cards being first.

So, while its origins are still somewhat murky, it is nice to know that it is a holiday with a long tradition and not a day invented to sell greeting cards.

The following article, by co-authors Jo Ellen Collins and Cheryl O'Malley, was taken from The Portal, the newsletter of the Medfield Historical Society

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