To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.
Then up he rose, and donn’d his clothes,
And dupp’d the chamber-door;
Let in the maid, that out a maid
Never departed more.
—William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 5
Shakespeare might sound nice and funny but when it comes to St. Valentine’s day I must admit it is one of my least favourite holidays. Seriously. I hate it, especially its commercial aspect – this savagely imposed regime of sugar-coated spending designed to swindle spare cash out of lovers and would-be lovers worldwide. What kind of holiday is it when its main, thinly veiled aim is to drive huge sales of chocolate (often stale) flowers (artificial or overpriced or both) and jewellery (no matter whether made of plastics or diamonds but often in Chinese prisons)? I was sure the whole thing was arranged by a free market demon (or a fallen angel – practically the same evil entity if you ask me) not so long ago. I couldn’t be more wrong. Know thy enemy, right? No more false assumptions then. Here I would like to present the history of St.Valentine’s day in a form of a concise calendar. Let’s start from…
Romulus and Remus fed by a she-wolf via Wikipedia
Historians trace the origin of Valentine’s Day to the Roman Empire. Small wonder – pretty much everything important in our culture can be traced to the ancient Greece or Rome. It is said that Romans observed a holiday on February 14th to honor Juno – the queen of Roman gods and goddesses. They also regarded Juno as the goddess of women and marriage. On the following day, February 15th, began the fertility festival called ‘Feast of Lupercalia’. The Lupercalia was celebrated to honor the gods Lupercus (a wolf god protecting shepherds and their flock) and Faunus (the Roman god of ariculture) besides the legendary founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus. It was marked in a different way than today, however. According to Noel Lenski, classics professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, young men would strip naked and use goat- or dog-skin whips to spank the backsides of young women in order to improve their fertility. Call it a holiday – no chocolates, no flowers, no cards, no need to purchase anything (stray dogs and goats at that time could be found anywhere). All you needed was a bit of luck with your girl and a whip.
On the eve of the festival names of young Roman girls were written on a slip of paper and placed into jars. Each young man drew out a girl’s name from the jar and was paired with the girl for the duration of Lupercalia. Sometime pairing lasted for a year until next year’s celebration (in other words some backsides were worth looking at for the second or even third time). Quite often, the couple would fall in love with each other and later marry. If not, there were always next Lupercalia and another chance.
Circa AD 197
A Christian known as Valentine of Terni was martyred
in the reign of Emperor Aurelian. Little is known of his life, except that he was made Bishop of Interamna (now Terni) in AD 197 and died not too long after. He was apparently imprisoned, tortured and beheaded on the Via Flaminia in Rome for his Christianity by the order of a Roman prefect. According to legend, he died on 14 February, but you shouldn’t believe it – it is likely a later addition.
Another Christian, Valentine of Rome, was martyred, this time under Emperor Claudius. A priest or bishop in the city, he was apparently arrested for giving aid to prisoners. While in jail, he is said to have converted his jailer by healing his blind daughter’s sight. According to another, later version, he is said to have fallen in love with the daughter, sending her a note saying “From your Valentine”just before his execution, but this is plainly apocryphal. In yet another, equally unlikely version, Claudius was claimed to have banned young men from marrying so that they would make better soldiers (a pile of rubbish this argument), and Valentine was arrested for secretly carrying out weddings (ha, ha very funny). Like his earlier namesake, Valentine of Rome allegedly died on 14 February, but – again – it seems it was simply chosen as a convenient date to make of him a patron of this holiday. If nobody knows when he died he could have died in the middle of February to suit our pockets and purposes, right?
Circa AD 496
The Pope, Gelasius, declared 14 February to be St Valentine’s Day (no matter after which Valentine), a Christian holiday. It was a part of a very popular politics of the Church at that time – if you can’t beat them (the pagans) join them. Apparently the old festival of Lupercalia was too popular among people to be eliminated. The saint in question was so evidently spurious that he was deleted from the Roman calendar of saints in 1969 by Pope Paul VI but of course who needs to know all these stupid little details, the show must go on. Now let’s jump some centuries to land in…
Geoffrey Chaucer writes his Parlement of Foules (or “Parliament of Fowls”), which is widely taken to be the first linking of St Valentine’s Day to romantic love. During the Middle Ages, people in England and France held a belief that birds started to look for their mate from February 14. This popular notion further helped to link Valentine’s Day – celebrated in the middle of the February, with love and romance. Celebrating the engagement of Richard II of England and Anne of Bohemia, Chaucer wrote: “For this was on St. Valentine’s Day/ When every fowl cometh there to choose his mate.” However, it is thought that this may have referred to 2 May, the saint’s day in the liturgical calendar of Valentine of Genoa – this would be a more likely time for birds to be mating in England and in the rest of Europe too.
On St Valentine’s Day a court is opened in Paris, the High Court of Love, dealing with affairs of the heart: marriage contracts, divorces, infidelity, and beaten spouses. A few years later, Charles, the Duke of Orleans allegedly writes the first recorded Valentine’s note to his beloved, while imprisoned in the Tower of London following capture at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Maybe it was only a simple letter but you know, nobody can be sure so…
St Valentine’s Day has entered the popular consciousness to the extent that one William Shakespeare mentions it in Ophelia’s lament in Hamlet: “To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,/All in the morning betime,/And I a maid at your window,/To be your Valentine.” I love Shakespeare so more of it is quoted above.
The passing of love-notes becomes popular in England, a precursor to the St Valentine’s Day card as we know it today. Early ones are made of lace and paper. In 1797, the The Young Man’s Valentine Writer is published, suggesting appropriate rhymes and messages, and as postal services became more affordable, the anonymous St Valentine’s Day card became possible. By the early 19th century, they become so popular that factories start to mass-produce them.
Following the English tradition, Esther Howland of Worcester, Massachusetts, starts producing cards – using the newly available and much cheaper paper lace, imported from England – in the United States. One specimen can be admired in the picture above,
Horrible pink lady with a pink heart (a valentine card which would make me commit murder) via Wikipedia
You might as well call this date the end of St Valentine’s
Day as a genuinely romantic event. Hallmark Cards produce their first Valentine. Woe is me. Now the date is the flagship “Hallmark Holiday” – together with Mothers’ Day, Fathers’ Day and so on, a series of celebrations notable mainly for the need to spend money, any heartfelt sentiment aside.
Al Capone, a ruthless gangster, and St Valentine’s Day? Is there any connection? Yes, there is. The St Valentine’s Day Massacre. A savage and bloody event I admit – five Chicago gangsters lined up and murdered with machine guns, apparently at the behest of our Al. I thought you would want to know. I wonder why he chose that day? A heartbreak perchance? A wrong card?
The commercialization continues at the dazzling speed: the diamond industry gets involved, promoting St Valentine’s Day as a perfect time for giving expensive jewellery . The “tradition” takes off. Who said only poor people can be manipulated?
St. Valentine’s Day generates an estimated $14.7 billion (£9.2 billion) in retail sales in the United States.
Apparently the tradesmen and marketing gurus will do everything they can, try every dirty trick in their books, to make us believe we need such a holiday. They are desperate to keep good business growing. Who wouldn’t, at their place? This year, however, if you feel an urge to buy something red, pink and tacky for your better (or worse) half on this day just ask yourself (and answer honestly, nobody listens) one simple question:
“What am I really celebrating?”