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The History of Valentine’s Day

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Vintage Valentine CardWith Valentine’s Day come and gone, I thought I’d just say a bit about the actual history of the celebration of love.  Throughout history there have been variations of celebrations of love, but they didn’t always take on the innocuous form that modern-day marketing departments have dreamed up.  Here in Switzerland 14 February is still fairly similar to 14 March – in other words, just another day in the calendar.  But celebrating love, in whatever form it takes, from loving your spouse or partner to loving your parents, your friends, pets or kids, is never a bad idea.  So let’s take a look at how bygone ages viewed it:

The innocently playful Valentine card started off more like a lottery ticket:  In ancient Rome, during the celebration of Lupercalia, the names of willing young ladies were put into a box and mixed up; young, available men could draw out a card at random, and that young woman or girl was thus won to remain his companion for the length of the celebration which lasted the modern date equivalent of 13-15 February, and was accompanied by animal sacrifices (a goat and dog).  Nothing said romance to the Romans like blood and guts and the smell of burning fur, apparently.

After a few centuries, the established Church realized that though you can lead a horse to water you can’t make it drink; so instead of forbidding the celebrations, they adapted them to be less offensive:  Their version was also a bit less entertaining; they drew names from the lottery as before but this time instead of young women, the name of a saint was drawn to whom prayers would be offered.  It was at this stage that Saint Valentine came to be associated with the day, as he had a reputation for being warm-hearted.  So the lottery for girls continued, perhaps more or less under the table, while ostensibly under the patronage of a saint.  By 1725 it had evolved into a game of drawing lots from two vessels, one each for men and women; their lot drawn was then their “Valentine”.  Not so sure how that worked – there must have been a prodigious amount of love triangles as the woman drew one name, the man drew another, and so on…

Another evolution in the celebration was as follows:  The first man seen by a woman that morning (outside her own household) became her willy-nilly Valentine, and neither could look for an alternative.  The famous Pepys left his home early on the morning of 14 February 1661 to be assured of getting the “right” Valentine, swapping a friend’s wife for his own for the day in a good-natured jest with the four of them.  It was customary at that time to give a handsome present to the Valentine’s woman, so it was worth getting a good one.  Mrs. Pepys got half a dozen pairs of gloves and a pair of silk stockings and garters out of that swap, so I can imagine that her husband did no less for his friend’s wife!

Letters to Valentines began as early as 1479, with references found in the Paston Letters, and continued for over 300 years.  The oldest Valentine’s cards were, naturally, all hand-made; the oldest one in possession, dated 1750, was in the Hull Museum as of the late 1940s.  Many such Valentine’s cards and letters were not kept as they were not worth the keeping to those who received them.  As the custom progressed, however, a clever marketing scheme was bound to spring up.  In the 19th century the commercial Valentine began life in the form of stationery (envelopes were unknown until after the 1840s), the stationery itself folded and serving as the envelope.  Still, such a ready-made Valentine was seen as a proof of failure, as people prided themselves in poems and compositions… they were labours of love, not a quickly-posted printed monstrosity.  So, new strategy:  Some Valentines were produced half-finished to allow the personal touch to be added in, and they were provided with a small parcel of add-ons (lace, hearts, trimmings, etc.) to that end.  In the end, it was hard for the individual to compete with a designer employing skilful artists, and the homemade Valentine vanished.

By 1880 the British post had to employ an additional 300-400 workers on 13 February to deal with the 1.5 million Valentines. (This statistic comes from the Post Office Magazine from February 1937.)  The manufactured cards continued to become more elaborate, embossed, lithographed, laced with studs, birds, baskets, ribbons and Cupids with colourful petals, trellis-work and even perfume.  But as with all mass-produced items, art decays when it becomes profitable; mass-production caused a huge drop in popularity.  In the mid-1930s a new medium was explored, the Valentine Telegram, which continued up until WW2.

My earliest memory of Valentine’s Day was in grade school; we each constructed and decorated a “letter box” and taped it to our school lockers; every day was like Christmas for that week, wondering who we’d gotten anonymous cards from!  Another Valentine memory is from college, when I dated someone who was studying Chinese to become a missionary; on that February morning I went to my car to go to work and found a long stemmed rose on the windshield with a card… in Chinese.  I still have the card somewhere, as a book mark, and it still makes me smile.  We both went on with our lives in different directions, but I still consider him a friend.

So the next time you chose a Valentine’s Card, ponder a moment.  Perhaps the sentiment would be better represented by a good, old-fashioned handmade card instead… that personal touch that will still speak volumes in years to come.

What are some of your own Valentine’s memories?

(For more fascinating histories of holidays and celebrations, check out The English Festivals, by Laurence Whistler.)

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About Trinity

A melancholic pragmatist with a wide streak of mischief and an active imagination that turns into novels.

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