history lesson: Valentine's Day

i've heard (okay, so maybe seen on facebook is more accurate) a number of people in the last few weeks talking about how Valentine's Day is just a 'holiday invented by the greeting card, candy, and floral companies'. of course, i see where this kind of sentiment is coming from- it has become awfully commercialized and seems to have been reduced to a cheesy jewelry ad- but as someone who (as i mentioned yesterday) has always enjoyed Valentine's Day, i set out to find out what the history of the holiday is and see if it could be redeemed from corporate America.

this guy- he's not corporate America!
'love rocks' valentines and photo from Bunny Cakes

there are a number of legends, from very different cultures, that contributed to the creation of Valentine's Day...

a pagan festival

until the 5th century, the Roman festival Lupercalia- a fertility festival- was celebrated in mid February. this festival was believed to have included animal sacrifice, after which the hides would be cut into strips and priests would go about gently slapping woman and crops with these strips. being touched by this hide was believed to make women more fertile in the coming year. during the festival, according to legend, all the single women would place their names in an urn and the bachelors would later draw names and pair up for the year with the woman whose name they drew. it was said that many marriages resulted from these pairings. somewhere around the end of the 5th century February 14th was declared Saint Valentine's Day by Pope Gelasius and Lupercalia was outlawed.

i had a very hard time finding a family friendly image for Lupercalia, so instead i went with this awesome vintage wolf tee. Lupercalia was named as such in honor of the wolf, or canis lupus, who nursed the founders of Rome.
photo and tee from Shop Glovebox

a saint...or three

the Catholic church recognizes three saints named Valentine (or Valentinus), all of whom were martyred. there are several legends surrounding these saints and from what i could find, it's not certain which is the saint the day officially honors. one Saint Valentine was purported to be a priest in 3rd century Rome when Emperor Claudius II outlawed marriage for young men, believing that single men made better soldiers. Valentine saw the injustice of this decree and defied the emperor by continuing to perform marriages in secret. When his actions were discovered, Claudius ordered Valentine be put to death.

other legends around Saint Valentine suggest he was imprisoned and killed for helping Christians escape Roman prisions, where beatings and torture were common. some even say that Valentine actually sent the first 'valentine' from prison- after falling in love with his jailor's daughter, who visited him in prison. before he died, it is said he sent her a note signed 'from your Valentine'.

regardless of who Saint Valentine actually was, the stories all seem to feature him as a heroic, sympathetic, and romantic figure, and by the middle ages he became one of the most popular saints in both England and France.

mosaic of Saint Valentine from Church of the Dormition in Jerusalem.
photo from Catholic News Service

the birds and the bees

during the middle ages, in England and France at least, the belief that February 14th was the beginning of bird mating season, contributed to Valentine's Day being associated with romance. Chaucer may have actually had a hand in establishing the day as a day of romance with his poem 'The Parliament of the Fowls'.

Geoffrey Chaucer.
public domain image.

will you be mine

the oldest existing valentine known today was a poem by Charles, Duke of Orleans, written in 1415. the poem was written to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London after being captured at the Battle of Agincourt.

by the middle of the 18th century, it was common for people to exchange notes and small tokens of affection and by 1900, with the advent of better printing technology and affordable postage, valentines were often printed cards. today it is estimated that 1 billion valentines are sent in the U.S. each year.

1861 Valentine's Day image from Harper's Weekly.
public domain image.

1920's valentine and photo from the Vintage Valentine Museum.

1930's valentine.
photo from the Vintage Valentine Museum

1950's valentine.
photo from the Vintage Valentine Museum

1960's valentine.
photo from the Vintage Valentine Museum. 
1980's 'Get Along Gang' valentines (I totally had these guys!).
photo from Frugal Fairy Vintage

while Valentine's Day may have gone off track, it does appear to be more than just a conspiracy by the greeting card companies! so- have i changed your mind about Valentine's Day? do you love it? hate it? i'd love (no pun intended) to hear your thoughts!

(online sources for today's history lesson: History,  Catholic News Service, National Geographic News).