By Marilyn Jones
Like many holidays, Valentine’s Day seems to get boiled down and marched along as store displays and television commercials advertise flowers, candy and jewelry — all wrapped up with a big red bow and a sentimental greeting card. But, in reality, we love this mid-winter celebration and all its pomp and circumstance. Second only to Christmas, Valentine’s Day is the most popular holiday for remembering our loved ones.
In fact, according to the Greeting Card Association (GCA), based in White Plains, N.Y., an estimated 160 million greeting cards will be bought for Valentine’s Day this year. That number doesn’t even include children’s packaged valentines which add many millions more to the number of valentines purchased.
Everyone seems to know there was a saint involved and that February is all about love, gift giving and card sending, but where did Valentine’s Day originate and how did it become this celebration of the heart?
There are scholars who believe this day of love has its roots in a pagan ritual carried forward by the ancient Romans. Celebrated in February, Lupercalia was a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, as well as to the Roman founders Romulus and Remus.
To begin the festival, Roman priests would gather at a sacred cave where the infants Romulus and Remus were believed to have been cared for by a she-wolf. The priests would sacrifice a goat, for fertility, and a dog, for purification. They would then cut the goat’s hide into strips, dip them into the sacrificial blood and take to the streets, gently slapping both women and crop fields with the goat hide.
Although it would seem strange by today’s standards, Roman women welcomed this. They believed it would make them more fertile in the coming year. Later in the day, according to legend, all the young women in the city would place their names in a big urn. The city’s bachelors would each choose a name and become paired for the year with their chosen maiden. These matches often ended in marriage.
Lupercalia survived the rise of Christianity, but was outlawed at the end of the 5th century when Pope Gelasius declared February 14 St. Valentine’s Day in honor of the religion’s saint.
During the Middle Ages, it was commonly believed in France and England that February 14 was the beginning of birds’ mating season, which added to the idea that the day should be a day for romance.
The Catholic Church recognizes at least three different saints named Valentine, all of whom were martyred. Some believe that Valentine’s Day is celebrated in the middle of February to commemorate the anniversary of Valentine’s death or burial, but in all likelihood, the celebration was held in February as a way to Christianize Lupercalia.
The legend often sited claims Valentine was a priest who served during the 3rd century in Rome. When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied the emperor and continued to perform marriages. When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death.
Another account suggests Valentine helped persecuted Christians escape Roman prisons. According to one legend, an imprisoned Valentine sent the first valentine after he fell in love with a young woman who visited him during his confinement.
Before his death, it is romanticized that he wrote her a letter signed, “From your Valentine.”
A tradition is born
Lovers have been sending handwritten valentines to one another since the Middle Ages, but the idea of exchanging valentines really caught on in England. By the early 19th century, paper valentines with adornments such as lace and ribbons were being assembled in factories there.
It wasn’t long before the notion of sending valentines made its way across the Atlantic. In the mid-1800s, a Massachusettsbased printer and artist named Esther Howland was among the first to produce Valentine’s Day cards in America. Her elaborate designs included multiple layers, lift-up flaps and embossed flowers.
Ready-made cards were an easy way for people to express their emotions in a time when direct expression of one’s feelings was discouraged.
According to GCA, Valentine’s Day cards are expected to be particularly popular this year, since a greater number tend to be exchanged when the holiday is celebrated during the week. This year February 14 falls on a Thursday.
There are valentines to please everyone — from contemporary designs for your BFF to traditional ones for Grandma. They’re affordable too, ranging from less than a dollar for a simply printed card to $9.99 or more for one with special treatments such as embossing, die-cutting, foil-printing and hand-detailing.
So, whether you are remembering your significant other, a friend or a relative, just remember it’s about the remembering as much as it once was about the romance. Send a little love through the mail.