No one knows the true origin of Valentine’s Day. There are several legends surrounding the history of this annual, love filled celebration. From Pagan Days to Ancient Rome to modern times myth and mystery shroud one of America’s favorite holidays.
One theory of the origination of Valentine’s Day focuses on an ancient pagan festival. Legend tells of an annual celebration, during which priests sacrificed animals, which were then butchered. Men would slap women with strips of the meat dipped in the sacrificial blood as it was believed this would make the women more fertile. Following this barbaric ritual the women’s names would be placed in a bucket, randomly drawn and paired with the men. If the match was a success, each mate would wear the name of their new lover on the sleeve of their shirt for one week, publicly declaring their betrothal by wearing their heart on their sleeve. How romantic!
In an effort to end this pagan festival, the Pope and the Catholic Church created their own feast and festival around 500 AD, on February 14th, officially declaring St. Valentine’s Day. Even this part of Valentine history is obscure because the Catholic Church had named three saints ‘St. Valentine’ prior to 500 A.D. Curiously, all three of these saints are said to have been martyred on February 14th. Most scholars believe the true ‘St. Valentine’ was a priest named Valentine who lived around 270 AD. At that time, Roman soldiers were prohibited from marrying because the emperor believed bachelors made better soldiers. A priest named Valentine is said to have secretly married hundreds of soldiers and their lovers. Valentine was apprehended by Rome, jailed, and later put to death. Before his death it is said he fell in love with the jailer’s daughter, to whom he penned love letters and poems, signed “love, your Valentine”.
Over the centuries Valentines Day has evolved. By the 14th century lovers were exchanging handmade cards in England and France. These cards were made of lace, ribbon and colorful papers. The switch from handmade to manufactured cards came in the mid-1800s, which was the same time that Valentine’s Day greeting cards became popular in the U.S. American Esther A. Howland, known as the Mother of the Valentine, made elaborate creations with real lace, ribbons and colorful pictures known as “scrap”. She sold these cards and eventually they became so popular that they were printed for mass distribution.
During the American Civil War, homesick and love struck soldiers sent Valentine Cards from the battlefield. Harpers Weekly even published a special Valentines Days greeting page in 1861 celebrating the Valentine tradition. Harper’s Weekly was the most popular newspaper during the Civil War, and it featured stunning illustrations, and in depth stories on all the important people and events of the war. Recognizing that many soldiers sent letters and cards, handwritten themselves or by fellow soldiers, to their sweethearts back home who some wouldn’t see for years on end during the war, Harper’s weekly celebrated undying love on Valentines Day during the Civil War with a special edition devoted to soldiers’ love. Most Civil War soldiers bought Valentine Cards from the sutlery, who in addition to carrying supplies of boots and weapons, also sold stationery and greeting cards. Here’s an example of a beautiful Civil War era Valentine titled ‘MY LOVE’:
‘Mid bugle’s blast and cannon’s roar,
And ‘mid the battles angry flame;
‘Mid clashing sabres red with gore,
I fondly breathe they much-loved name.
I feel thee near at dead of night,
When I my vigil lone am keeping.
Thy image guards me, angel bright,
In dreams when wearied I am sleeping,
Each northward wind wafts on its breath,
To thee a yearning kiss of mine.
On glory’s field or bed of death,
I live or die thy Valentine.
What would Valentines Day be without a loving phone call to your mother? It’s interesting to note that this wouldn’t be possible without a telephone, the patent for which was filed by Alexander Graham Bell on February 14th, 1876.
At the turn of the Century, during Victorian times, everything became more prudish – including Valentine’s Day. Post offices began scrutinizing Valentines. As many as 25,000 cards every Valentines Day during this period were destroyed by the Chicago postmaster because they were deemed too racy.
Today, 25% of all greetings cards sent are Valentines. This year that means over 1 billion cards will be given on Valentine’s Day. Whether you believe Valentines Day originated with the Pagans or the Catholic Church, remember that Valentine’s Day is the day to celebrate love. Love for each other and love for ourselves.