Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Valentine's Day

The identity of Saint Valentine for whom the day is named is unclear. There are several possible Valentines who were martyred or beheaded during the februa, or the Roman festival of purification held on February 15. One legendary Valentine was a Roman priest or bishop who lived during the reign of Emperor Claudius the Second. Claudius believed that married men made poor soldiers, so he banned marriage for young men who would potentially become soldiers. Valentine defied the Emperor's decree and continued to quietly marry young couples in clandestine locations, an activity that was considered treasonous by Romans. Valentine's secret marriage ceremonies were eventually discovered. Attempts were made to dissuade him from continuing the nuptials and even to get him to convert to paganism. Valentine refused. He was imprisoned and beheaded on February 14.

Other stories tell of a Valentine who assisted Christians to escape prisons where they were brutally treated. Valentine, himself, was eventually imprisoned. While in prison, Valentine is thought to have fallen in love with the blind daughter of the jailor who visited him during his incarceration. Valentine restored her sight. Despite the jailor's pleas for Valentine's release, Valentine was sentenced to death. On his way to be executed he passed a note to the jailor's daughter that read, "With love, from your Valentine."

Yet another Valentine suffered in an African prison along with several companions and was eventually martyred, but nothing else is known of him. All three of these Valentines are mentioned in early martyrologies for February 14. The legend surrounding Valentine is likely an amalgamation of romanticized stories about several different people. The feast of St. Valentine was dropped from the church calendar in 1969.

Some see the holiday as having its roots in the Roman feast of Lupercalia, a celebration that was dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture and that honored Rome's founders, Romulus and Remus. It was celebrated on the ides of February. Roman priests of the Luperci traditionally sacrificed a goat for fertility and a dog for purification in the cave where twin brothers Romulus and Remus were cared for by the she-wolf. After the ceremony, boys would slice the goat hide into strips and soak them in the sacrificial blood. They would then run through the streets slapping the fields and women with the blood-soaked strips hoping to bring greater fertility for the coming year. Other events of the day included a custom wherein young women placed their names in an urn. Young men would then draw a name from the vessel and become paired with the woman for the coming year. Many of these matches ended in marriage. In time this practice was outlawed.

The popular traditions of Valentine's Day are generally traced to medieval times. February 14 was thought to be the date when birds begin to pair. In 1381, Chaucer composed a poem in honor of the engagement of Richard III and Anne of Bohemia. Following poetic tradition of the day, he linked the occasion to a feast day. His Parliament of Fowls includes the line, "For this was on St. Valentine's Day when every fowl cometh there to choose his mate," thus linking the engagement, the mating of birds, and St. Valentine forever.

The day came to be thought upon as one that was dedicated to lovers and an occasion for sending tokens and messages of love, many of which initially were in song. The oldest known written valentine was sent from Charles, Duke of Orleans, who while confined in the Tower of London following the battle of Agincourt in 1415, composed romantic verses for his wife in France. Several years later, Henry V hired a writer, John Lydgate, to compose a valentine to Catherine of Valois.

In 1640, a book titled Cupid's Messenger appeared containing poetic verses and romantic sonnets in flowery language. By 1645 many of these verses began to be published more widely and such passionate lines could be found in periodicals and other publications. Samuel Pepys's Diary contains an entry for St. Valentine's Day in 1667 noting a surprise valentine he received from his wife. The handwritten message of love was written in gold on paper that had been cut out with scissors and pasted against a blue pastel paper.

During the 18th century booklets known as writers became popular. They contained an assortment of verses and messages that men could copy into letters to their sweetheart. The book also suggested replies for ladies to return. These messages were usually copied on to specially decorated papers with open space for handwritten messages.

Prior to the 19th century, valentines were handmade and took a number of forms. Puzziks or puzzle purses were made from folded paper. They had many folds of verses that had to be written in a certain order. The order of the verses was usually numbered and sometimes the recipient had to twist the folds in order to determine the complete message. Rebus valentines contained romantic verses with certain words or phrases replaced by tiny pictures. For the sentence "I love you so much," the word I would be replaced by the picture of an eye, love by a heart, you with the picture of a female sheep (a ewe), and so with the illustration of a piece of fabric with a needle and thread, leaving only the word much written out. Pinprick valentines were made by piercing tiny holes in paper with a pin or needle to create the appearance of lace. Some valentines used acrostics where the beloved's name was spelled out by the first letter of each verse of the valentine.

By 1815 most of the cities and even rural towns of England had a Penny Post. Prior to this time postage was expensive, and many valentines were either hand-delivered or left on the doorstep. The exchange of valentines increased considerably. For a brief period from 1820 to 1829 insulting valentines, known as penny dreadfuls were sent in certain circles. These cards featured insulting rhymes and unflattering illustrations. Fortunately, this practice was relatively short-lived. When uniform postal rates were introduced throughout the entire United Kingdom in 1840, the English tradition of the valentine really took off. Valentines could affordably be sent all over the country and even beyond its borders.

The Victorian period brought with it the "Golden Age of the English Valentine." Specially made papers with intricate designs became available. Cupids, doves, hearts, and other designs were printed on cards adorned with satin, silk, and netting. The decorated papers were folded into quarto size and decorated with embossed borders as well as pictorial scenes. Some were further decorated with beads, feathers, and lace paper. The paper was then folded over and sealed with wax. Lacy valentines reached their peak in popularity between the 1840s and 1860s. Valentines continued to be more innovative with mechanical valentines that moved when a tab was pulled.

The tradition of valentines in the United States did not become popular until the 1850s when Esther A. Howland, of Worcester, Massachusetts, began commercial production of handmade valentines. While working in her father's stationary store, she became intrigued by the laced papers and valentines her father imported from England. She began to cut out some designs of her own, further adorning them with crepe and paper flowers and some original artwork. Her father was impressed with her creations and ordered more supplies for her work. Her brother, who traveled around the countryside promoting their father's business, took along some of his sister's creations. They were an overwhelming success. Esther hired some of her friends to help her in drawing and copying valentine designs. She set up a production line where one young woman would paste the background, another cut out the pictures, and finally one to glue on the trim. By 1862 one New York card company bought over $30,000 worth of her valentines.

During the Civil War it became popular to have valentines made of a heart split-in-two, representing the separation of the soldier from his sweetheart. Some valentines had tent flaps which when opened revealed a soldier awaiting his beloved with open arms. After the war a similar theme was used with a church and a window that opened to reveal a bride and groom. Some wartime valentines included a lock of the lover's hair. Other valentines from the Civil War period are of the paper doll variety with elaborate trim and embroidery.

By the turn of the century, valentines were generally mass-produced. Postcard valentines were especially popular during the first decade of the 20th century. While 19th-century etiquette prohibited women from sending valentines, the modern times of the early 20th century lifted the taboo. Whimsical valentines became popular. Many children would exchange them with their friends. By mid-century, books of punch-out valentines were marketed for children. These books often even included one valentine to be given to the teacher. It was not unusual for schoolrooms to have a valentine "mailbox" to facilitate the exchange. Many children's valentines had a cartoon quality and carried humorous messages.

Traditional Valentine's Day colors are red, pink, and white. Red symbolizes passion and deep affection. White represents purity and faithfulness and devotion. Pink signifies warmth and loving kindness.

The heart is the most common symbol associated with the day. It is often paired with other symbols such as an arrow that pierces the heart, thus showing the vulnerability of expressing one's love. Cupid is also a popular symbol. The mythological winged youth is usually depicted with a bow and quiver of arrows, which he used to transfix the hearts of young men and women. Doves are used to represent loyalty and love because they mate for life. Love knots, with a series of interwoven loops with no seeming beginning or end, symbolize everlasting love and are often incorporated into borders. The letters o and x have come to represent hugs and kisses. The o symbolizes an embrace, and the x is thought by many to have evolved from the medieval practice of those who could not write signing with an x and then kissing the x before a witness as a sign of sincerity.

Flowers have long been a popular valentine's gift. During the early 1700s Charles II of Sweden brought the Persian poetical art known as the "Language of Flowers" to Europe. Various flowers were associated with certain feelings and developed specific meanings. This permitted couples to exchange romantic secrets without ever uttering a word. Books were written detailing many shades of meaning and covered a wide variety of blooms of all sorts. The jonquil was said to mean that the sender desired a return of affection. The purple lilac represented the first emotions of love. Ivy meant fidelity and marriage. Sometimes the color of the blossom carried the meaning. The red rose was the symbol of love but the white rose indicated innocence or friendship. A yellow rose meant jealousy or even betrayal. The practice of using flowers as expressions of romantic love gained popularity, reaching its height in the late 19th century. The red rose remains as the most popular botanical representation of love.

Candy, particularly chocolate, is another popular valentine's gift. The custom of giving chocolate dates back to the 19th century when chocolate was an expensive gift. While not made out of chocolate, conversation hearts have come to be a Valentine's staple. Originally, the candies were small, crisp, scallop-shaped candies wrapped in colored paper printed with sayings. Sweet Hearts, which were candies with the motto inscribed directly on them, were first made in 1900. The candy was cut into shapes like horseshoes or baseballs in order to allow longer sayings. In time the sayings became shorter and the now familiar heart shape was introduced.

Volo, Dorothy Denneen. "Valentine's Day." Daily Life through HistoryABC-CLIO, 2012. Web. 14 Feb. 2012.

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