The history of Valentine’s Day

POSTED February 13, 2018

February is here. I can’t believe how quickly time seems to pass. The cold will soon begin to subside and the chirping of birds will become more audible. February. Love is in the air… but why? Why the shortest month of the year? Why not March, April, or even May? And why “Valentine’s Day”? Couldn’t it be called… well I don’t know what exactly you’d call it. Anyway, who was this “Valentine” guy? Why would I call myself someone’s “valentine” or ask someone to “be my valentine” if I don’t even know who in the world this “Valentine” guy was? Sounds a tad bit strange to me… but I guess it doesn’t have to be. I mean, if I knew who this guy really was, maybe it wouldn’t be so weird.

Though not completely unified, there are two very similar beliefs as to why Valentine’s Day is held on February 14. Some say that Valentine’s Day was created to “Christianize” Lupercalia, a pagan fertility festival celebrated in Rome. Others, however, believe that a saint by the name of Valentine was murdered on the eve of Lupercalia (February 14), giving a reason to both the date and name of the holiday.

During the festival of Lupercalia, the History Channel documents that Roman priests would sacrifice a dog for purification and a goat for fertility. Next, they would make strips from the goat hide, dip the strips in the blood of their sacrifice, and wander through the streets, lightly slapping women and the ground with the strips. Believed to improve fertility in the year to come, women welcomed the gentle slaps from the bloody hide strips.

A lottery of sorts was also held on the day of Lupercalia, during which the young women of the city would deposit their names into a big pot. Marshall Brain, author for How Stuff Works, explains that the bachelors of the town would then draw a name, and the woman by which it belonged would be paired with him for the rest of the year,s. This tradition was later adapted several times during the Middle Ages, Stephenie Slahor, author for Renaissance, stated. In one case the same rules of drawing names, as mentioned above, would apply, except rather than being together for a year, the man and woman would only be paired for the day. Another variation was that both boys and girls would draw names out of separate pots, “and if a boy drew a girl’s name and she drew his, that was considered an omen that they’d certainly marry.”

One’s Valentine could also potentially be determined “by throwing hemp seeds over one’s left shoulder into a bowl shallowly filled with water.” Whatever shape the seeds formed, revealed one’s future. Depending on the interpretation, you could find anything from an initial to a picture in the strewn out seeds, which could mean anything from the initials of your true love, to your future social status.

The festivities didn’t end there; the middle ages also brought forth parties with bowls of rosewater that kept crushed herbs afloat, and turnip lanterns known as “love lanterns,” crafted by men for their sweethearts. In France during the fourteenth century, according to an author from Library Media Connection, a “court of love” was appropriated to “deal with marriage contracts and the abuse of women,” and in Italy, young couples would take walks and listen to music and poetry.

In regards to where the name “Valentine” comes from, there seem to have been a multitude of “Saint Valentine”s over the years; however, two have stood out more than others. One account, recorded by the History Channel, says that a priest by the name of Valentine married young couples during the A.D. 200’s. This doesn’t appear as much to be remembered for, but if we dig a little deeper, it turns out that during this time the Emperor of Rome (Claudius II) had forbidden young men to choose wives and be married. He believed that unmarried, single men were the better soldiers when compared to those bound in marriage. Valentine, opposed to this ordinance, began to wed young couples in secret.

Another report of a man named  Valentine was that of an early Christian who befriended numerous children. He was later thrown in jail for refusing to worship the gods of the Romans, and eventually martyred on February 14.

Dearly missing the Valentine just mentioned, several of the children he had befriended wished for his release and “tossed loving notes between the bars of his cell window” according to World Book. While in prison, Christian Science Monitor expresses that Valentine was also said to have healed the sight of a young blind girl who was the daughter of one of his jailers. He befriended her, and, before his death, wrote her a final message signed “From your Valentine.” These three little words have proved to be meaningful and lasting, as they, as well as variations like “be my valentine,” remain popular to this day.

John Winthrop, used these exact words on February 14, 1629, as he wrote his wife “Thou must be my Valentine.” Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, is accredited with bringing the tradition of Valentine’s Day cards to the states according to Christian Science Monitor. The colonists didn’t, however, pick up this tradition right away. As they were quite busy trying to build themselves new lives, they didn’t have time for making valentines. Many years later though, during the winter months when there was not much work to be done, men would make cards for Valentine’s Day. Once the holiday arrived, they would seal, and hand deliver their handiwork.

Today one can find dozens upon dozens of Valentine’s Day cards in the store thanks to Esther Howland and Joyce Hall. Howland, from Massachusetts, started creating valentines in the 1840s in the US after being inspired by a British valentine. Hiring many young women to staff her card-making assembly lines, she was able to create a business for herself that would prove to be very successful. In her first year, Howland, as recorded by How Stuff Works author, Marshall Brain, sold $5,000 worth of cards, which, in today’s dollars, would be worth over $130,000.

Another big valentine entrepreneur was Joyce Hall: Nebraska resident and teen founder of Hallmark. Hall decided she wanted in on the valentine-making business, so in 1915 she began to sell Valentine’s Day cards. What set her cards apart and made them more desirable than that of her competition was the fact that her cards came with envelopes, making them easier to send in the mail.

Over the centuries, Valentine’s Day has been molded and shaped into the day of romance that we celebrate today. From swinging around strips of bloody goat hide to writing love letters, it seems that this holiday and its roots have seen just about it all. Yet, had it not been for a Saint marrying young lovers in secret, or a man persecuted for sticking to his religion, we may not have had the widespread holiday of love and affection that we do today.

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