Today, February 14, many of us will celebrate Valentine’s Day aka “The Feast of Saint Valentine” (the “Day”). The Day is named after St. Valentine. We will present our loved ones with flowers, candy, jewelry and/or a romantic card. The Day is celebrated in some form by people all over the world, but why, and who was St. Valentine? What did he do to merit this recognition? Read on and be edified.
My research disclosed that the origins of the Day are shrouded in mystery. It is not clear what is fact and what is legend. Apparently, it originated as a religion-oriented Christian feast day to celebrate an early saint, or saints, named “Valentine.” Over time, it has evolved into a Day more associated with romance than religion.
There is historical evidence that there may have been more than one martyred saint named “Valentine.” For example, Valentine of Rome was martyred in 269 by Roman Emperor Claudius II for the crime of performing marriage ceremonies for persons who were forbidden to marry (presumably for religious reasons), for example, Christian soldiers. Supposedly, in 496 Pope Gelasius established February 14, the date of his death, as the “Feast of Saint Valentine” in his honor.
In addition, the same Claudius martyred Valentine of Terni in 273 evidently, for similar offenses, hence, the religious origin of the Day. Due to the factual similarities and chronological and geographic proximity of these two events, some historians believe that the two were actually one and the same. There is another legend that Saint Valentine, while in prison, restored the sight of his jailer’s blind daughter. Moreover, to top it off, prior to his execution he wrote the daughter a romantic farewell note, which he signed “Your Valentine.” Perhaps, this was the first Valentine’s Day card.
St. Valentine has been called the patron saint of beekeepers, epilepsy, the plague, fainting, and travel as well as lovers, engaged persons and marriage. Busy guy.
Most historians credit the romantic aspect of the Day to Geoffrey Chaucer, a 14th century English author and poet. Chaucer is best known for The Canterbury Tales, a collection of 24 stories written over a 13-year period between 1387 and 1400. According to author, Jack Oruch, Chaucer was the first person to associate the Day with romance and love. In a poem entitled Parlement of Foules in 1382 in honor of King Richard II’s engagement to Anne of Bohemia, he wrote (in Middle English):
“For this was on seynt Volantynys day; Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.”
For those of you who are not scholars of Middle English it translates to
“For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.”
By the end of the 18th century publishers were providing suggested romantic verses to persons who were unable or unwilling to compose their own (sort of a forerunner of the greeting cards with which we are all familiar). During the 19th century the popularity of these cards increased to the point that they became mass produced. Their popularity was aided by the invention and wide usage of the postage stamp in the 1840s, which enabled one to mail cards to distant locales. In time, valentine cards became more elaborate. Esther Howland, a bookstore proprietor in Worcester, MA, is credited with being the first person to mass-produce Valentine’s Day cards of embossed paper lace in 1847. Soon, these mass-produced cards replaced handwritten notes.
In 1868 Cadbury, the British-based chocolatier, hopped on the bandwagon. It began marketing decorated boxes of chocolates, called “Fancy Boxes” for the Day. As we know, other candy makers soon followed suit as well as purveyors of other products, such as flowers and jewelry. Now, with the advent of the internet, many people send their holiday greetings electronically, more efficient, but less personal. Over the years Valentine’s Day symbols of love and affection have developed, such as doves, heart shapes and the winged Cupid.
According to the US Greeting Card Association, Americans send nearly 200 million greeting cards on the Day, and that excludes those cards exchanged personally by school children. Many of us remember, probably with more embarrassment than fondness, exchanging valentines with elementary school classmates. (I had one such experience that I will keep to myself.) The GCA estimates that when those cards are included the figure swells to over 1 billion. In fact, collectively, teachers are the largest recipients of Valentine’s Day cards.
Alas, like all other holidays, the Day has become commercialized to the extent that its original meaning and purpose has become obscured in the mists of time. As mentioned above, it is now celebrated all over the world, by people of all religions, not just Catholics. After all, there are lovers everywhere.
- In Latin American countries such as Puerto Rico, Costa Rica and Mexico, it is known as the “day of lovers.” Typically, people perform “acts of appreciation for their friends, romantic or not. Brazil celebrates the day on June 12 in connection with St. Anthony’s Day (the marriage saint). In addition to the usual exchange of gifts, single women traditionally perform rituals known as simpatias with the intention of attracting a good husband.
- In China the Day is called “lovers’ festival.”
- In India the Day did not catch on until circa 1992, when the idea was spread by American tv programs.
- In Israel the Day is celebrated in late August in connection with the traditional holiday, Tu B’Av.
I could go on and on, but you get the idea. As we know, love is universal. So, enjoy the day. Don’t forget your loved ones.