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The History of Valentine's Day
Many people try to complain that Valentine’s Day is nothing more than a “Hallmark holiday” dreamed up by businesses seeking to profit from the desperate masses seeking love. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Valentine’s Day traces its history back to ancient Rome, long before any such businesses started looking towards their bottom line.
In ancient Rome, February 14th was declared to be a celebration for Juno, queen of all the Roman gods and goddesses. Boys and girls who were segregated throughout the year would come together and draw names from a jar, and would pair up with the chosen person throughout the Festival of Lupercalia. Often, as a result of these pairings, the couples would fall in love and sometimes get married.
There are many legends of how Valentine’s Day came to be at this point in Ancient Rome. Some believe that St. Valentine helped prisoners of harsh Roman prisons escape and thus was imprisoned by the Roman Empire. This legend continues that, while in prison, St. Valentine fell in love with his jailor’s daughter and began to send her written love letters signed “From your valentine.”
The prevailing legend is that St. Valentine was a Roman priest who began to secretly marry couples against the direct orders of Emperor Claudius II. Claudius believed that he was having difficulties recruiting soldiers for his immense military because the young men didn’t want to leave their sweethearts at home. To combat this problem, he declared that both engagements and marriages were illegal. St. Valentine eventually was executed for his violation of Claudius’ orders, but his spirit lived on throughout Rome.
When the Roman Empire fell and the Church became more prevalent throughout medieval Europe, they abolished all pagan rituals and celebrations including the Festival of Lupercalia. However, the people didn’t want to give up their traditions of boys drawing girls’ names. Therefore, the Church declared February 14th to be a holiday in celebration of St. Valentine, the priest who secretly married so many couples.
However, the boys were then told to draw names of saints instead of girls. The boys were then to emulate the life of their chosen saint for the following year. The people continued this for a short period of time, and then reverted back to choosing names of girls instead of the saints.
By the 15th Century, St. Valentines Day was celebrated with lovers singing their romantic feelings to their chosen ones. People often wrote sonnets and other love poems to give to their romantic interests. By the end of this century, these sonnets were written on ornate paper and became the first valentines. In fact, the oldest surviving valentine was written in 1415 from the Duke of Orleans to his wife. It was written while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London and is on display in the British Museum in London.
Soon, valentine brands became known for their unique properties. Fraktur Valentines were known for their ornate, medieval-style lettering. A piece of paper was folded and cut into an elaborate, lacey pattern for Cutout Valentines. Puzzle Purse Valentines were complex puzzles of folded paper, allowing different portions of the valentine to be exposed at different times. Oilpaper stencils were used to paint Theoren Valentines. And Pinprick Valentines were made by, naturally, pricking a piece of paper repeatedly to transform the paper into a lace of sorts.
By the 18th Century, Valentine’s Day became extremely popular throughout Great Britain and lovers began to exchange token gifts alongside their valentine cards. Amongst the commoners, this gift was often a small sweet that could be obtained with meager funds. In the upper classes, the gifts became more and more extravagant and included large boxes of chocolates, sweets, and even jewels.
In the 1840’s, Esther A. Howland began her company producing valentines in the United States. She became known as the Mother of the Valentine, producing beautiful cards of colored paper, lace, and ornate lettering. By the late 19th Century, valentines were produced in factories by Norcross, later to be known as Hallmark.
These factory-produced valentines grew to encompass more than just declarations of undying love and devotion. As society changed and moved away from formal courtship, the valentines began to cover more light-hearted messages of humor and affection. These valentines became even more widely accepted as people expanded their circles of friends and companions.
Today, Valentine’s Day is celebrated as a holiday honoring romance. Boys and girls no longer pick names out of a jar, but instead exchange valentines with token messages of affection. In the tradition of Great Britain, children often exchange small sweets, while adult lovers give each other large cases of sweets and gifts.
While the exact origins of Valentine’s Day are slightly murky, there is no doubt that it is not just a holiday from the modern times. Instead, it is a chance to both honor the history and modernity of romance and affection.
About the Author: Jane S. Roseen is the Owner and President of Harmony Sweets, an international gourmet chocolate shop. Harmony Sweets' mission focuses on individual consumers purchasing gourmet chocolates from around the world for their friends and relatives, as well as corporate gift giving. Gourmet chocolate gift baskets and personalized chocolates are also available.