By Victoria Maneske
Valentine’s Day is approaching on Feb. 14, and stores are already overflowing with candy and heart-shaped knick-knacks for romantic gestures among loved ones. One can only imagine the amount of Valentine’s Day filters on everyone’s social media, with hearts bubbling on every post and ads swarming with teddy bear gift ideas. But what is the origin of this romantic holiday? How did we get to having flying babies with arrows shooting love everywhere?
We can begin by making a connection to the mystery of St. Valentine himself, who has a small trace in both Christian and ancient Roman tradition. One legend claims Valentine to be a priest during the third century in Rome, believing that Emperor Claudius II had an unjust decree that prevented young men from marriage, as single men were better suited as soldiers. He defied the emperor’s orders and held secret marriages for young lovers until he was discovered and put up for execution.
Another story states that Valentine fell in love with a jailor’s daughter during his imprisonment for helping others defy harsh Roman law, thus creating the first “valentine” greeting as he introduced himself to the young girl.
According to History.com, “Although the truth behind the Valentine legends is murky, the stories all emphasize his appeal as a sympathetic, heroic and—most importantly—romantic figure. By the Middle Ages, perhaps thanks to this reputation, Valentine would become one of the most popular saints in England and France.”
As for the origins of Valentine’s Day itself, one claim is that the Christian church placed St. Valentine’s feast day on the date it did as an attempt to Christianize the pagan holiday of Lupercalia, which was a fertility festival committed to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, and Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome. Lupercalia consisted of a sacrificial ritual and feast. Lupercalia was eventually outlawed in the rise of Christianity when Pope Gelasius declared the day St. Valentine’s Day at the end of the fifth century.
Also stated by History.com, “During the Middle Ages, it was commonly believed in France and England that February 14 was the beginning of birds’ mating season, which added to the idea that the middle of Valentine’s Day should be a day for romance. The English poet Geoffrey Chaucer was the first to record St. Valentine’s Day as a day of romantic celebration in his 1375 poem ‘Parliament of Foules,’ writing, ‘For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day / Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.’”
Throughout the years, there have been various festivities for celebrating the holiday. One example could be pulled from France, as stated by Clefrance.co.uk, “A former Valentine’s Day custom, which was officially banned, was that of ‘la loterie d’amour’, translated as ‘lottery of love’. Single people, both young and old, would go into their houses, (the houses all facing in on each other during this period), and call out until they were paired off with each other. However, if the gentleman was displeased with his ‘prize’ he would simply abandon her, hoping for better luck next time! Those women abandoned by their suitors would build a large bonfire and burn images of their men, cursing and abusing them as the flames burnt. However, due to fears of public disorder the government issued a decree banning the practice.”
The oldest record of a Valentine greeting is in a poem written by Charles, Duke of Orleans, in 1415 to his wife as he was imprisoned from his capture at the Battle of Agincourt (https://www.history.com/topics/british-history/battle-of-agincourt). As Britannica.com stated, “Formal messages, or valentines, appeared in the 1500s, and by the late 1700s commercially printed cards were being used. The first commercial valentines in the United States were printed in the mid-1800s.”
Esther Howland ran one of the earliest and most successful American valentine businesses during the 1850s and 1860s, importing fancy paper and other décor from her father in England in order to create and sell valentines. At that time, around the 1840s, with an increase in paper production and the printing press, low costs caused an expansion pre-written cards with pre-written poems that lovers could buy and exchange. In 1911, Hallmark was founded with technologies to mass produce valentines in various textures and colors, edging the beginning of the twentieth century to sell more products, such as candy and flowers, marketing the holiday to schools and “shifting the focus to the competitive collecting of the most valentines rather than a single sincere one,” as stated by Unlv.edu.
Cupid is a very popular figure on Valentine’s Day, and this Roman god is based on Greek mythology from Eros, the Greek god of love. The Hellenistic period adapted him to become a chubby, mischievous flying baby.
Granted, there is a commercialization of Valentine’s Day, and in some ways, it could possibly be toxic when it comes to the various depths of social media, perhaps by all the marketing and putting a price on high expectations, competition and conformity under a socioeconomic hierarchy. However, there is still freedom to express love in a genuine way as there is little to no pressure to make public declarations of it, or even celebrate it at all. No matter what it has been used for, the legend of Saint Valentine himself stems from a dedicated appreciation and commitment to love.