Heart of the Matter | The Evolution of Valentine’s Day

Can’t buy love? Interflora and Hallmark disagree. Valentine’s Day, a key day in the commercial calendar sends hearty purchasers into frenzied splurges on syrupy cards, flowers, chocolates and every kind of love token. Behind all this commercialization, however, is an enthralling history with tangled traces back through the ages to Roman times.

Lupercalia, the Roman festival of fertility was celebrated in mid-February. Roman priests or Luperci offered goats (scapegoats) as a sacrifice to Faunus, God of Agriculture and to Juno, Goddess of Marriage. Youths stripped naked, cut the goat-hides into ribbons and dipped them in the sacrificial blood. They then raced about, in and out through the city walls, flaying at crops and at women with the blood-soaked thongs. Women welcomed these bloodied spankings, believing that they would increase their fertility. At night-fall, the city’s maidens furtively placed their names or personal tokens into a large urn. Each bachelor picked from the urn, pinned the identifying token to his toga and sallied forth, wearing his heart on his sleeve, to find his mate. Matched couples paired off for the year –  or longer, many resulting in marriage.

An imprisoned Saint Valentine

In the year 270 A.D., Rome was battling bloody conflicts on all fronts and the Emperor Claudius II was having problems keeping his legions replenished. Whether because of emotional attachments or bedroom exertions, he knew not, but what Claudius did know was that married soldiers were not as valiant or vigorous on the battle-field as their unattached brothers. He issued an edict outlawing marriage. Love-struck young Christians appealed to the priest Valentine who duly obliged. Word filtered back to Claudius. Incensed, he ordered that Valentine be captured and beheaded. Legend has it that Valentine befriended (ahem) his jailer’s daughter and waxed on a tablet a farewell, signed – from your Valentine.

In 498 A.D., Pope Gelasius declared February 14th Saint Valentine’s day. The date, he didn’t pluck from thin air. Early church leaders regarded the old festival of Lupercalia as unchristian and wanted to claim it from the Romans and recast it as a proper feast day. So, they set about popularizing a saint who would represent lovers.  Initial success was patchy as the old pagan customs endured, but through the ages they did merge with Christian practices. Some Church scholars suggest that the Sacred Heart became the Valentine Heart, now joined in messages of affection with the Roman Love God, Cupid.

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Chaucer’s Parliament of the Fowls

Then ext milestone in the history of Saint Valentine’s Day is a literary one that began with Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th century poem, Parliament of Fowls. No records exist of Saint Valentine’s Day celebrations before this poem. Though in Britain February 14th did have associations with nature and fertility, handed down from the Roman invasion. Chaucer pioneered the crucial involvement of birds with Christian courtly love. The poem celebrates the betrothal of England’s Richard II and Anne of Bohemia in 1380: “For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day, / When every foule cometh to choose his mate.”

Charles, Duke of Orleans, imprisoned after the battle of Agincourt, spent his solitary days writing romantic verses to his wife. On February 14th, 1415, lamenting his lonesome state, he wrote: “I am already sick of love,/ My very gentle Valentine.”  The duke’s prison poems are now regarded as the first ‘valentines.’ The practice caught on.  Shakespeare too cites Saint Valentine when in Hamlet, Ophelia ruefully says:

‘Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s Day, / All in the morning betime,

‘And I’m a maid at your window, / To be your Valentine.’

On February 14th 1665, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary: ‘this morning called up by Mister Hill, who my wife thought had been come to be her Valentine; she it seems having drawne him last night, but it proved not’.  Samuel isn’t jealous – perhaps because of his own roving eye? More likely because the game of drawing-names that Mrs Pepys played was an innocent one.  Echoes of the old Roman urn? Definitely.

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Samuel Pepys

The rose’s red, the violet’s blue, / The sugar’s sweet. So are you. This familiar couplet that generations of schoolboys transcribed into cards and sent anonymously to giggling girls was first discovered in a 1784 collection of nursery rhymes. By the end of the 18th century it was common for friends and lovers in all social classes to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes. These took the form of a prayer or more frequently a verse on pretty paper, especially made for Valentine greetings. Chapbooks were on hand to aid those dumbstruck in the face of sentiment.

Here is one from a fishmonger:

Thy skin is a whiting, thy eyes
As bright as the scales of my fish
My turtle, my sole, thee I prize.
Accede then I pray to my wish.
If his heart’s desire didn’t fancy smelling of fish for the rest of her life,
she might respond: Sir as a flounder, I am flat
And have been so through all my life
So flatly tell you – worthless sprat
I never will become your wife.

Britain’s rapid industrialization in the 19th century brought huge advances in printing, so printed cards were easily mass produced. And the timing was perfect! Ready-made cards were a way around the Victorian stiff upper pen at expression of emotion.  All that was required was a signature (or not) and the card slipped under a door or tied to a door-knocker.

The growing use of envelopes and the introduction of the penny stamp in 1840 meant that the posting of cards became popular. Strict Victorian fathers would not allow their cossetted virginal daughters to have potential suitors or correspondents without their prior vetting. So, cards were made with secret pockets and panels, where clues to the identity of the sender were disguised under folds of lace and ribbon. No doubt the censorship of strict parents and the uncertain anticipation of the lottery-mating games of old spawned our modern tradition of anonymity.

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St. Valentine’s remains, Whitefriar Street Church, Dublin

An excavation of a Roman catacomb in the early 19th century uncovered remains, believed to be those of Saint Valentine. In 1836, Father John Spratt a legendary preacher of the Carmelite Order in Ireland gave a wonderfully petrifying sermon in Rome. So moved was Pope Gregory XVI, that he gifted a golden casket containing Saint Valentine’s precious remains to the Carmelites in Dublin. Since then the remains have been displayed in Whitefriar Street Church.

While Saint Valentine is occupied all year round interceding in earthly matters, he is particularly busy on February 14th. On this day, love-seekers, weary of Tinder, speed-dating and the like throng to his shrine in Dublin to place petitions. He is open-minded too as this one from 2014 shows: ‘Dear St. Valentine – thank you for giving me a 3rd chance @ love. Help me to be the best that I can.’


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