It’s a sweet tradition and a nice bit of history and folklore that has been hijacked by commerce.
The myth of Saint Valentine is hard to trace, he was like Santa in as much as he was drawn from folklore and legend and there were loads of him. Quite how he became linked to romantic love is not reasonably clear. There were a few guys called Valentine knocking about in Ancient Rome, there are eleven Saint Valentine’s in the Christian callendar, most of them martyrs with no love in their lives apart from a range of deities and possibly the odd donkey. Yes, some of them made sacrifices, but not for love, maybe for pies. Nobody knows.Pope Gelasius I declared a Feast Day for Saint Valentine in 496 AD, without really knowing who the guy was, just that he had done “something good known only to God”. However, it seems that Gelasius was just trying to deflect from the established, rather wilder feast, Lupercalia, which was some kind of Pagan key party taking place between 13th and 15th February and involving pairing lovers by pulling names out of an urn; an infant-suckling She-Wolf; a bunch of scone-baking vestal virgins; the sacrificial blood of a slaughtered goat being anointed on the foreheads of two young lovers then wiped off with milk-soaked wool; nobles and magistrates laughing and running naked through villages and whipping women on their bare bottoms with shaggy thorns to rid the town of evil spirits and to promote fertility (who needs IVF?) and, presumably, to give themselves perverse pleasure.
Interestingly enough, Gelasius abolished Lupercalia in the same year he declared 14th February Saint Valentine’s Feast Day – coincidence? So, instead of thorny whipping, hysterical laughter and beast blood, a more ‘Christian’ approach to courting was encouraged, sadly.
Bring back Lupercalia, I say.
So, who was Valentine and how is he connected to the card?
A nice wee fairy-tale, embroidered and perpetuated by the world’s largest greetings card company (who shall remain nameless), runs that in early mediaeval Rome Valentine opposed a law by Claudius II who, wanting to grow his army, banned young men from marrying. This Valentine was a clergyman who married sweethearts in secret and when caught was arrested. Then, the story goes, that whilst awaiting his imminent beheading he wrote the first Valentine card to the daughter of his jailer – of whom he had earlier cured of blindness with his magical hands. He wrote, “From your Valentine”.
So, anyone who believes this romantic story to be true also believes in healing hands and, no doubt, the Tooth Fairy.
Sentimental customs grew from this folklore and romance connected to Valentine blossomed and permeated perennially down the years. But, apart from the archaic fertility rite in Ancient Rome, nothing about romantic love connecting Saint Valentine can be found until Chaucer, who wrote these lines in his poem, “For this was Saint Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate”. But the date was 2nd May, the feast day for Valentine of Genoa, and a more likely time for birds to be mating in England. Nevertheless, the love birds were born.
A court was set up on February 14th 1400 in France to deal with love contracts, betrayals and violence against women. The High Court of Love selected their judges based on poetry readings (how very French!) and thus began the tradition of the now clichéd love poems written in Valentine’s cards.
The poem, “She bath’d with roses red, and violets blew, And all the sweetest flowres, that in the forrest grew” is from Edmund Spencer’s The Faerie Queene, written in 1590 and adapted down the years in variant forms. I remember writing “I like you in blue, I like you in red, but most of all I like you in bed” one year, rather innocently, on a birthday card for my Dad!!!!! with a drawing of him sitting up in bed, happily watching the golf. A mortifying fact! Just mortifying. Still mortified even though he died a long time ago. Still cringing. Crrrringing!
In 1797, The Young Man’s Valentine Writer was published containing scores of sentimental verses for the young lover unable to compose his own. Embroidered lace and gilt-edged letters were exchanged containing these wonderful poems and other messages of love. And with the Victorians came the Penny Post, making sending letters affordable for all. It was not long before custom-made Valentine’s cards were produced and sending them became very popular, not least because they could remain anonymous leading to racy verse from the otherwise prudish Victorians, but also because it made the card producers very rich.
In 1969, Pope Paul VI abolished the saint’s day on the 14th of February because the history was all a bit tenuous, and since we all know how unlikely it is for the Catholic Church to actually change anything, it must have been well dodgy.
In the UK, around 1.3 billion pounds are now spent annually on cards, flowers, chocolates and other gifts, with an estimated 25 million cards being sent and around 15 million e-valentines cards exchanged. Not to mention the money spent on glue and glitter by the cheapskates who make and hand-deliver their own. That is absolutely the very last time I will ever date a student.
Business is business, and I have no problem with that; if that’s what people want to throw their money on, so be it. But is everyone who is sending cards and purchasing gifts actually sending the love? Or, are they just bowing down to a commercial holiday for fear of spousal disappointment?
It’s a sweet tradition, and a nice bit of history and folklore that has been hijacked by commerce. Yes, I have had some fun and happy Valentine’s Days down the years myself, but I have also had far better romantic times on other days of the year. Seems clichéd, but, seriously, if you love your spouse/lover/gardener, why not tell them every day? And if you want to give them gifts, don’t wait till Valentine’s Day or, for that matter, Christmas Day. I mean, if someone wants to send me roses, chocolates or precious gemstones wrapped up in red satin, I will happily accept them any day of the year.
Sending the love 24/7