A History of Valentine's Day
Valentine's day is a jumble of traditions, beliefs, and celebrations that has come to us from a distant past. It is celebrated on February 14th because it was upon this day that Saint Valentine was supposed to have been executed for performing marriages. It was a strange thing to happen to a priest who fervently believed in doing what he thought was right, helping couples to consecrate their love.
The story goes back the 2nd Century A.D. when Christians were persecuted by the Roman government. Christian marriages and other ceremonies were absolutely forbidden. The legend has it that Claudius II was trying to raise an army in Rome. It was his belief that married men would not make good soldiers because they would always be worried about their wives and children back home. To raise men for the army he forbid young men to marry. The punishment for any priest who would perform a marriage ceremony would be death!
Because he so fervently believed in love and the idea that marriage was a holy state, St. Valentine performed marriage ceremonies, placing his allegiance to God before the Government in Rome. The good saint was caught performing a marriage and was hauled into prison and after a trial before the emperor, beheaded.
This is probably the most dramatic story associated with Valentine's Day. It is thought by some (related in Butler's Lives of the Saints) that Valentine's Day was associated with February 14th as a way to supersede the pagan Roman holiday of the Lupercalia in which "boys drew the names of girls" to become their partner for the feast and dance. The stories and history surrounding Valentine's martyrdom are fairly obscure and references to the above story are relatively recent.
But there are additional legends associated with Saint Valentine. It is said that he loved children and would give them flowers from his garden. When he was thrown in prison to await his trial before Claudius II, he met the jailor's daughter who was blind. At his trial he had the cheek to try to convert the Roman Emperor. It was said to be this act that actually brought him the death sentence. While awaiting his execution, he touched the jailor's daughter's eyes and brought her sight. St. Valentine then wrote her a farewell message, and signed it "from your Valentine" which she could read because of the miracle.
With these two stories of St. Valentine, we have one that appeals to adults, and another that appeals to children. This dichotomy is interesting as it reflects the different aspects of the holiday. Children see it as a innocent romp where gifts and cards are exchanged in the manner that Valentine gave flowers to the children and a note to the daughter of the jailor. Adults see it as almost a sacrament where their serious love is celebrated in a serious manner. It is certainly a serious matter should a man forget to get a gift, or at least flowers for his wife on this date!
Of course, customs that occurred in Rome long ago spread because of the influence of Rome's army and later the Catholic Church which was centered there. The custom of Lupercalia and later Valentine's Day made an easy transition to the British Isles. In a custom reminiscent of Halloween, children would go about, house-to-house, singing songs, while adults tossed them flowers or pennies.
The custom of boys drawing the names of girls to find a partner for a party or dance (or even the entire year) died out in the late middle ages. The church frowned on the practice, so the names of saints were substituted for the girl's names. The boys were supposed to live their life for the next year in the manner of the saint drawn. This practice proved less popular, and the tradition of name drawing died out altogether.
In the 1600s giving gifts to sweethearts came into fashion. First it was flowers, and later (for the wealthy), jewelry. Giving a young lady a pair of gloves on Valentine's Day was thought to be the equivalent of a proposal of marriage.
As education and the ability to read and write became more widespread, written Valentines became popular. Calling cards were often inscribed with a brief affectionate note and passed to a sweetheart. In the 1700s card makers saw an opportunity and began making cards especially to be used on Valentine's Day. People wrote each other poems, and those who were not of a literary bent could purchase a book chock full of Valentine's poems for a penny, and copy one off. The practice of sending cards and letters on Valentine's Day really took off when the cost of postage fell to a penny per letter. Valentine's Day became one of the mail carrier's busiest days of the year.
The card industry in Britain began creating elegant and very expensive cards. However, machine production soon displaced the intricately worked cards with inexpensive stamped cards. By the late 1800s cards and letters on Valentine's Day had almost gone out of fashion in Great Britain. It was mainly relegated to children. The Great War (1914-1918) also seemed to put a damper on things. It was not until 1925 that elegant cards on Valentine's Day for grown-ups came back into style.
Because of the close association of Great Britain with the United States, Canada, Australia and a number of other countries, Valentine's Day traditions took off all around the world. Valentine's Day is also celebrated in European countries, including Germany, Austria, and Spain. In Britain children still get candy or money for singing songs. In the United States children frequently exchange cards, candy, and cup-cakes en mass in grade school, and grown-ups still exchange cards, gifts, and sentiments.
Although this article relies on several sources, much of the information provided can be found, written in loving detail, in Fern G. Brown's, "Valentine's Day" which is currently out of print. However, used copies are available here and there. I wish to thank her for all her hard work in writing this short, entertaining, and fact filled work. It certainly helped give direction to my own research.