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Saint Valentine’ : I deal in hope

I deal in hope : Carolyn R Scheidies

Blog Valentine’s Day—Tracing the Tradition

Tomorrow is St. Valentine’s Day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.
(Ophelia in Hamlet IV, 50)

It may come as a surprise that as far back as Shakespeare’s day (1564-1616) Valentine’s Day was a popular holiday.

One English custom was derived from an old Roman rite of choosing a partner. Young women had their names written on pieces of paper and placed in a box. Reaching into the box, the young men each pulled out the name of a young woman to whom they would pay special attention for the next year.

Though no one has been able to pin point a single beginning to the holiday we celebrate today as St. Valentine’s Day, the holiday has roots in ancient Rome. On February 15th, Romans celebrated a pagan festival to their goat-man god Lupercus called Lupercalia. Both the date and the focus on fertility may have influenced the celebration of St. Valentine’s Day as a day for lovers.

However, St. Valentine was an actual person. He was a courageous priest who cared more about following the laws of God than about serving the sometimes capricious laws of men. Not only did Valentine give aid and comfort to the persecuted Christians, but also, when the Roman Emperor Claudius II abolished marriage, (believing single men made better soldiers), married couples in secret.

Eventually he was caught, imprisoned, and finally executed in AD 269…February 14th. Two hundred years later in 496, Pope Gelasius declared February 14th as “St. Valentine’s Day.”

Miracles (such as restoring the sight of the jailer’s daughter to whom he wrote a farewell note signed, “From your valentine”) were attributed to Valentine along with stories that spoke of his care and concern for others.

John Lydgate, an English poet who died in 1450, wrote about the custom of Saint Valentine as a “religioun.”

In a tradition much like that of our Ground Hog Day, the British believed that birds chose their mates on February 14th. (On the Julian calendar this date came later in the Spring than it did after the change of calendars in 1582 to the Gregorian calendar we now use.)

Charles, Duke of Orleans, is credited for beginning the trend of sending verses. After capturing the French Duke at the Battle of Agincourt, the English imprisoned him in the Tower of London. On St. Valentine’s Day in 1415, he sent his wife a love letter written in verse.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, stores carried books of verses. Later, as the giving of cards became more and more popular, stores sold fancy ready-made blank cards. Often noted artists and engravers turned their hand to making valentines.

In the late 1800’s Kate Greenaway, a British artist and poet, became known for her cards featuring rich garden scenes and blissful children.

In America, Esther A. Howland of Worcester, Massachusetts, decided in 1847 to create her own line of cards after seeing a Valentine card made in England. Howland was so innovative in her use of color, texture and style that she built up a business of over $100,000…and this was over one hundred years ago!

Though never made a legal American holiday, St. Valentine’s Day is firmly entrenched in American tradition. Through the years, while the style, size and shape of cards may have changed, the sentiment remains primarily the same.

Valentine’s Day is a day of hearts and flowers, candy and cards. It is a celebration of friendship, of happiness, and … most of all … of love.

© 1998, 2020 Carolyn R. Scheidies

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