As a Holiday
From as early as the 4th century B.C. to the 5th century A.D. in Rome, young men partook in a popular pagan rite of passage to the god Lupercus. This tradition became known as Lupercalia and was held every year around February 15. Noel Lenski, a classics professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, discussed this pagan ritual in National Geographic. Lenski states that Lupercalia was a “raucous annual Roman festivals where men stripped naked, grabbed goat- or dog-skin whips, and spanked young maidens in hopes of increasing their fertility.”
This rite of passage was still popular through the initial rise of Christianity. Early church leaders, however, sought to end this pagan tradition by popularizing a saint that would represent lovers. They looked to Valentine, a bishop, who had been martyred two hundred years earlier. Through St. Valentine, the church hoped to curb the festival. Not only did St. Valentine’s Day curb the pagan tradition, it lasted through centuries of religious, social and economic upheaval to become ingrained in popular culture today.
The Legend of St. Valentine
The legend of Valentine is that in 270 A.D. the emperor Claudius II issued a law against marriage. He wanted to expand the Roman Empire as far as he could but in order to do so, he needed a well-trained and focused army. Claudius believed that marriage clouded soldier’s judgment and emotions. If the man got married and made a home, he would be less likely to leave it for battle. Since Claudius wanted soldiers for the empire, he abolished marriage. This is where Valentine steps in. One of the legends has it that Valentine was the bishop of Interamna and invited young lovers to come to him and he would marry them in secret. When Claudius heard of Valentine, he tried to get Valentine to renounce Christianity. Valentine would not and on February 24, 270, Valentine was executed.
According to the legend, before Valentine’s death he fell in love with the blind daughter of the jailer. Because he did not waver in his faith and refused to renounce it, he was given the power to restore her sight. Before he met his fate, he penned a farewell message to her and signed it “From Your Valentine.”
Valentine’s Day Cards
The giving and receiving of valentines is as old of a tradition as the holiday itself. Mid-February was traditional the time Roman men courted prospective mates. During courting, it was popular to give handwritten notes of affection on February 14. After the introduction of St. Valentine, the cards acquired that same name.
The oldest existing valentines card is housed in the British Museum. In 1415, Charles, duke of Orléans, gave his wife a valentine while being held prisoner in the Tower of London. The French nobleman was wounded and captured at the Battle of Agincourt during the Hundred Year’s War. [Zim’s Side Note: The Battle of Agincourt was the centerpiece of William Shakespeare’s Henry V. Charles, duke of Orléans appears in the classic play as well.] The valentine that Charles writes to his wife while in prison was not the typical happy-go-lucky valentine that we may be use to. Instead, the note was of somber yearning.
Je suis desja d’amour tanné
Ma tres doulce Valentinée…
I am already sick of love
My very gentle Valentine…
In America, the idea of Valentine’s Day was brought over with the new settlers. During the Revolutionary War and Civil War, valentines consisted of mostly handwritten notes and it was common for the soldiers to keep their loved one’s notes of affection close. Esther Howland, a printer and artist, was the first American publisher of valentines. In the 1870s, her elaborate handmade lace cards would cost between five to ten dollars. Some of her more intricate cards could sell for as much as thirty-five dollars. She became known as the “Mother of the Valentine.” The advancements in printing technology allowed for the mass production of valentines started in the early 1900s.
Next to Christmas, Americans buy more cards for Valentine’s Day than any other holiday. In a survey by the National Retail Federation, fifty-two percent of American buyers plan to send at least one card for Valentine’s Day. The Greeting Card Association estimates that approximately 150 million greeting cards will be purchased this year (2012) alone in the U.S. While Valentine’s Day found its origins in rituals and legends, it has now become a staple in consumer culture and American culture.
“Valentine’s Day,” history.com.
David Stewart White, “Historical Valentines in Europe,” examiner.com, January 19, 2011.
John Roach, “Valentine’s Day: Why Do We Celebrate It?” National Geographic, February 13, 2012.
Greeting Card Association, “Valentine’s Day Card Sales Hold Steady for 2012,” January 24, 2012.
Charles Panati, Panati’s Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things, New York: Harper, 1989, 50-52.