Where does all the lovey-dovey February stuff come from? Well, like most of our annual celebrations and special days, there are many theories about the origin of Valentine’s Day.
Pick a theory. Any theory.
Some historians say that many of the rituals and lore associated with Valentine’s Day stem from pagan events like the festival of Lupercalia, which was held between February 13 and 15. This ancient Roman celebration began as a celebration honouring the she-wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome. The root of Lupercalia, named after the Roman god Lupercus, is the Latin word lupus — wolf. During the festival, young men dressed themselves in the skins of sacrificed goats and ran around the walls of the old Palatine city with thongs, striking girls and women lined up along the route to receive lashes. The lashing was supposed to ensure fertility, prevent sterility in women and ensure a painless childbirth. In essence, it was a fertility festival.
The first recorded association of Valentine’s Day with romantic love is in Parlement of Foules (1382) by Geoffrey Chaucer, who wrote:
“For this was on Seynt Valentynes day
“Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make.
(“For this was Saint Valentine's Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.”)
This poem was written to honour the anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia on May 3, 1381.
It was later assumed that Chaucer was referring to February 14 as Valentine's Day, however, mid-February is an unlikely time for birds to be mating in England.
“The confusion helps explain why, for most of the Northern Hemisphere, such Valentine’s Day staples as fresh flowers and lovebirds just aren’t consistent with this time of year,” said Henry Ansgar Kelly, a Medieval scholar and author of Law and Religion in Chaucer’s England.
As was customary in his time, Chaucer strove to associate the date with a saint's feast day. Relying on contacts made eight years earlier on a diplomatic mission to Italy, Chaucer learned that May 3 was the feast day of St. Valentine in Genoa (there were actually eight St. Valentines, according to tradition). Chaucer’s Valentine’s Day (he wrote three poems on the topic) was
May 3, not February 14.
The shift of the day of lovers to February 14 in honour of St. Valentine occurred shortly before the poet’s death in 1400, according to Kelly. At the time, the date was fixed as St. Valentine’s Day on the church calendar. Once established as a day for romance, February 14 began to attract imagery that had been associated with love since antiquity, including hearts and cupids.
Sentimental customs, posing as historical fact, had their origins among 18th-century antiquaries, notably Alban Butler, the author of Butler’s Lives of Saints, and have been perpetuated ever since, including the idea that Valentine’s Day customs perpetuated those of the Roman Lupercalia.
Another theory describes celebrations during the middle ages when young people in England, Scotland and parts of France assembled on St. Valentine’s Eve and drew names from an urn. The person whose name was on the slip of paper was the holder’s Valentine or sweetheart for one year.
Who sent the very first Valentine? Well, this depends on your point of view. You could interpret the first Valentine to be the letter sent to a young girl in the third century. This note was sent, appropriately, by a young Christian martyr named Valentine.
The Valentine in this story was imprisoned in Rome for refusing to worship pagan gods. Even worse, he was beheaded on February 14, after restoring the sight of his jailer’s blind daughter. Valentine sent the girl a farewell letter signed: “From your Valentine.”
Almost sounds too good — and too logical — to be true, doesn’t it?
Another version of the first Valentine sent debate says that Charles, Duke of Orleans, sent the first one in 1415 to his wife while he was a prisoner in the Tower of London.
Commercial Valentines were introduced in Europe in the early 1800s. Before that, the “loving” sentiments were actually not cards, but little books of poems. The custom spread to the New World where smitten young men would copy love lines from such books onto gilt-edged paper adorned with bleeding hearts — lover’s knots and the mythological Cupid with his arrows dipped in love potion.
Meanwhile, the first Valentine’s cards were printed in Worcester, Massachusetts, by Esther Howland (who, we assume, must have been a very romantic lady). Her elaborate creations, which sold for as much as $35 each, earned her a place in modern history as the “Mother of the North American Valentine.”
Kids say the darndest things I’ll leave you with a couple of thoughts from youngsters about love and Valentine’s Day:
• A nine year old had this version — “Falling in love is like an avalanche where you have to run for your life!”
• A seven year old mused that if falling in love was anything like learning to spell — “I don't want anything to do with it because it takes too long.”
• An eight year old said: “When love happens between two people, I think they’re supposed to get shot with an arrow or something. But, the rest of it isn’t supposed to be so painful.”