This year, I’m helping out at the florist shop (again) answering the phones and trying to keep some sense of order in the chaos. I wanted to repost a bit of the history of Valentine’s day . . . and all that goes with it. (I will do my best to do another chapter of “moving tales” tomorrow)
We may owe our observance of Valentine’s Day to the Roman celebration of Lupercalia, a festival of eroticism that honored Juno Februata, the goddess of “feverish” (febris) love. Annually, on the ides of February, love notes or “billets” would be drawn to partner men and women for feasting and sexual game playing.
Early Christians, clearly a dour bunch, frowned on these lascivious goings-on. In an attempt to curb the erotic festivities, the Christian clergy encouraged celebrants to substitute the names of saints. Then, for the next twelve months, participants were to emulate the ideals represented by the particular saint they’d chosen. Not too surprisingly, this prudish version of Lupercalia proved unpopular, and died a quick death.
But the early Christians were anything but quitters, so it was on to Plan B: modulate the overtly sexual nature of Lupercalia by turning this “feast of the flesh” into a “ritual for romance!”
This time, the Church selected a single saint to do battle the pagan goddess Juno — St. Valentine (Valentinus). And since Valentinus had been martyred on February 14, the Church could also preempt the annual February 15 celebration of Lupercalia. The only fly in the ointment was Valentinus himself: he was a chaste man, unschooled in the art of love.
Despite the efforts of the Church, Valentine’s Day continued to echo Lupercalia in at least one respect – men and women, married or single, would draw lots to select a “valentine.” Once paired, the couple exchanged gifts and sometimes love tokens as well. The custom of lottery drawings to select Valentines persisted well into the eighteenth century. Gradually, however, a shift took place. No longer did both parties exchange gifts; instead, gift-giving became solely the responsibility of the man!
This new twist helped to finally bring an end to the random drawing of names, since many men were unhappy about giving gifts (sometimes very costly)to women who were not of their choosing. And now that individuals were free to select their own Valentine, the celebration took on a new and much more serious meaning for couples!
The first written valentine is usually attributed to the imprisoned Charles, Duke of Orleans. In 1415, Charles fought his lonely confinement by writing romantic verses for his wife. By the sixteenth century written valentines were so common that St. Francis de Sales, fearing for the souls of his English flock, sermonized against them.
Manufactured cards, decorated with Cupids and hearts, appeared near the end of the eighteenth century. A purchased valentine became the most popular way to declare love during the early decades of the nineteenth century. Miniature works of art, the cards were usually hand painted and were often lavishly decorated with laces, silk or satin, flowers (made from the feathers of tropical birds), glass filigrees, gold-leaf or even perfumed sachets!
Did you know that the current popularity of St. Valentine’s Day owes much to the modern postal service? Until the mid-1800’s, the cost of sending mail was far beyond the means of the average person. Even worse, the postal service demanded payment from the recipient, not the sender, of the letter! Imagine receiving a Valentine card, paying the postage due, then reading that you were “…valued beyond rubies” by your Valentine. Even more ironic… discovering that your Valentine card was from an unwelcome suitor! So, until the advent of the penny post, most valentine cards were hand delivered by the prospective lover.
This history adapted (stolen) from