From Goat Blood to Lace Cards – The Evolution of Valentine’s Day

There is more than one legend regarding the origin of Valentine’s Day and its celebration. The actual facts have apparently been lost over the years. At least two stories date back to third century Rome. At this time ancient Romans celebrated the birth of Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, on the Ides of February, February 15, with a Lupercalia festival. Goats were sacrificed and males of around 14 years of age celebrated their maturity by gently slapping pieces of the goat hides against women marking them with the goat’s blood. Ladies today would be offended by this treatment but Roman women considered it a way to bring them fertility and considered it good luck. Another part of the festival involved the young men choosing single women’s names from a vessel and pairing with them for a year. Many of these matches ended in marriage.

As one legend is told, The Emperor Claudius banned marriage, thinking that single men made better soldiers. Needless to say the young people of Rome weren’t all in favor of the Emperor’s solution. The Christian Church was in its infancy at this time and a young priest by the name of Valentine secretly married couples anyway. Emperor Claudius had Valentine arrested for this and later executed him. During his incarceration Valentine either fell in love with or healed the blindness of a young woman, possibly his jailer’s daughter. Before dying he wrote her a note, signing it “from your Valentine”. Some say he was executed on February 14th but other dates are mentioned as well. While some historians believe that St. Valentine’s Day was placed on February 14th to celebrate the anniversary of his death, others believe that the 14th was chosen to “Christianize” the Lupercalian Festivals. Pope Gelasius I, who spent much of his papacy trying to end pagan rites in general and specifically the Lupercalia, declared February 14th St. Valentine’s Day around 496 A.D. According to New Advent, an online Catholic Encyclopedia, Gelasius’ writing on the subject is one of his few surviving treastises.

In approximately 1380 Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Parliament of Fowles, in which he uses spring and birds’ mating in spring to describe the courtship & marriage of Richard II and Anne of Bohemia. St. Valentine figures prominently in Chaucer’s verse and is the first known mention of St, Valentine in poetry.

“For this was on Seynt Valentynes day,

Whan every foul cometh theere to chese his make…”

Chaucer also uses Venus and Cupid in this poem and because of this he is credited with starting the tradition of writing love poetry for St. Valentine’s Day. The practice of sending St. Valentine’s Day greeting spread throughout Europe during the middle Ages and written messages became popular by the 15th Century. After the Battle of Agincourt, Charles, Duc d’Orleans (Duke of Orleans), was incarcerated in Tower of London. In 1415, while a prisoner, he wrote a poem to his wife, Bonne d’Armagnac. This poem is considered to be the oldest existing Valentine. It is now a part of the manuscript collection in the British Library in London. Here it is in its Original French with the English Translation,

Je suis desja d’amour tanné,

Ma tres doulce Valentinée,

Car pour moi fustes trop tart née,

Et moy pour vous estine tost né.

Dieu lui pardoint qui estrené

M’a de vous, pour toute l’année.

Je suis desja d’amour tanné,

Ma tres doulce Valentinée,

Bien m’estoye suspeconné,

Qu’auroye telle estine,

Ains que passast ceste journée,

Combien qu’Amours l’eust ordonné.

Je suis desja d’amour tanné,

Ma tres doulce Valentinée,

I am already sick of love,

My very gentle Valentine,

Since for me you were born too soon,

And I for you was born too late.

God forgives he who has estranged

Me from you for the whole year.

I am already sick of love,

My very gentle Valentine,

Well might I have suspected,

That such a destiny,

Thus would have happened this day,

How much that Love would have commanded.

I am already sick of love,

My very gentle Valentine

Giving gifts and small tokens of affection grew in popularity through the seventeenth century. By the middle of the eighteenth century it was a common practice in all classes. The advent of cheap postage and envelopes made valentine cards even more popular. In the 1800’s the English people had wholeheartedly adopted the practice of sending Valentines many of which were very ornate, incorporating ribbons, lace, pull tabs to create moving figures and pop ups. Artists joined in with their drawings and paintings, most notable In England was Kate Greenaway.

At this time Americans were also sending Valentines and gifts in celebration of the day. They relied on homemade cards or ones imported from England. A young woman named Esther Howland received an elaborate card, imported from England, from one of her father’s business associates. She was a recent graduate of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary and was sure she could make something better. She convinced her father, a stationary and book store owner, to buy her supplies and she made elaborate lace covered cards. Her cards sold extremely well in America becoming a major industry. While she didn’t invent the Valentine’s Day card, she is credited with popularizing the lace valentine and is known as “The Mother of the American Valentine”. Her cards are recognized by the red “H” either on a sticker or printed on each card or by an embossed NEV Co (New England Valentine Company) found in later years. Her cards are still widely collected and each February Mount Holyoke College hosts an exhibit of her work. Examples of her cards can be seen on their website

The American Greeting Card Association estimates that over a billion Valentine’s Day cards are sent each year. This is second only to Christmas in number. And, what about other tokens of affection? Those thrive in America as well. The United States Census estimates $68 million of roses are sold wholesale each year. The red rose, said to have been Venus’ favorite flower, is the most popular flower bought in the United States for lovers. Chocolates are another favorite. Each year heart shaped boxes filled with chocolates appear in stores all over the country. In 2001, Americans consumed an average of 24 lbs each, much of which is consumed around Valentine’s Day. There are over 29000 jewelry stores in America selling wedding and engagement rings as well as other items. According to the U.S. Census Bureau these stores sold $2.1 billion last February. While today, Valentine’s Day is much more commercial than its earlier celebrations it is clearly still thriving in America today. St. Valentine certainly started something big with his hand written note back in the third century.

Source by Lucinda Harshey

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