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February 2003

Sentimental Education

A little history of Valentine's Day.

Does the mention of Valentine’s Day make you recoil in horror? Or are you intending to shower your sweetheart with kisses? Either way, it may be of interest to you to know about the legends surrounding this romantic holiday. It does, after all, have a long history, more than just the tradition bestowed upon it by the makers of tasteless valentine cards.

There are many different stories describing the advent of this ancient custom. The most popular one dates back to the Early Christian Church in AD 200, when the Roman Emperor Claudius II forbade young men to marry, as he believed single men made better soldiers than those with families. Believing this decree to be unjust, a priest named Valentine decided to continue marrying young lovers in secret. When his actions were discovered, he was sentenced to death, and the day of his execution was February 14. It wasn’t until AD 496 that Pope Gelasius I pronounced Valentine a saint and created a saint’s day in his honor. According to another popular legend, Valentine, imprisoned because he refused to worship Roman gods, fell in love with the jailor’s daughter (others claim that she was blind and that he restored her eyesight during one of her surreptitious visits to see him in jail). Before he died, Valentine wrote her a long love letter, signing it “From your Valentine,” a phrase still used today.

A third version attributes this romantic tradition to the ancient Roman festival Lupercalia, which celebrated the coming of Spring on the eve of February 14. The night before this fertility festival, young men would draw girls’ names out of a hat and the lady chosen would be their sweetheart for the year. And in the Middle Ages in England and France it was thought that mid–February was the beginning of the mating season for birds, thus adding to the romantic flavor of this month. Chaucer even referred to the idea in The Parliament of Fowls: “For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every fowl cometh there to choose his mate.” Since doves and pigeons mate for life, they have been the creatures most often used to depict fidelity.

The earliest known valentine dates back to 1415 and can be found in the British Museum Library in London: it was a poem written by Charles, the Duke of Orleans, to his wife—he had been captured at the Battle of Agincourt and was being held prisoner in the Tower of London. A few years later, King Henry V hired the poet John Lydgate—or so legend has it—to compose a valentine note to Catherine of Valois. The first commercial valentines date back to about 1800 and were rather simple in style. By the 1850s, however, they consisted of elaborate messages in gold and silver, and were decorated with satin, ribbon and lace. Today, elegant flower arrangements, chocolates and even fancy lingerie are among some of the most frequent valentine offerings, and valentine cards are the second most popular greeting cards sent, ranking just behind Christmas at a whopping one billion per year in the United States alone (though, not surprisingly, 85 percent of these are purchased by women!).

Just how many of the myths surrounding Saint Valentine and this ancient celebration are actually true we will probably never know. Love, however, comes in many forms and even if you don’t feel the urge to get all lovey-dovey, perhaps just being particularly good to your family and friends is valentine enough.

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