Saturday, February 11, 2017

History 101: A History of Valentine's Day

Ah, Valentine's Day... we celebrate it every February 14th and whether you are a romantic who oohs and aahs every time they see a couple in love, or a heartless curmudgeon who wants to throw rocks at those couples, the history of Valentine's Day has something for you!

Today, we celebrate Valentine's Day as a day of love.  We are told that if we love someone, we will remember them on Valentine's Day by buying them shiny gifts, or things that smell nice and augment that with an expensive dinner and a card that professes love forever and ever (and ever).  If you forget... well that's what the dog house is for.  It is most certainly one of the biggest profit centers for card stores all year long.  Hallmark claims it is the second most "bought for" holiday of the year, and that is second to Christmas.  That's fairly impressive.  And those flower stores?  They LIVE for Valentine's Day.  Without V-Day, 1-800-Flowers might not still exist!  It is estimated to be an almost $20 billion dollar industry and it is estimated that (wait for it) nearly 60 million pounds of chocolate are sold!

But if you think Valentine's Day is all about Cupid, Heart boxes filled with chocolate and diamonds -- you are quite mistaken.

It's All Ancient History
The history of Valentine's Day and St. Valentine himself is muddy at best, but we will recount the most commonly held beliefs that follow the history of this day which makes people love and hate pretty equally.  Although it is thought that as early as 496, Pope Gelasius has been thought of as the origins of "St. Valentine", it is most commonly thought that the man who is tagged with being "St. Valentine" lived during the 3rd Century CE in Ancient Rome.  The man known as Valentine was an early Christian who went around marrying young Christian couples in defiance of the Roman order that limited marriage.  Christians thought of marriage as a blessed sacrament, and Valentine defied the order in deference to God, and did so quietly.  However, just as in modern day, it was nearly impossible to do something the people loved and wanted and hide it from "the man".  The "the man", who in this case was Emperor Claudius II, confronted Valentine with his actions that clearly defied the empire the plea bargain was clear.  Renounce your God in favor of the state, or die.  As we know this was not an uncommon move in Ancient Rome, so we can't be too judgy on Claudius here, nonetheless this spoke to the idea of standing up not denouncing God in public so... you can guess what Valentine did here.  Valentine was stoned and eventually beheaded (on February 14th, 278).

Church Swipes!
So, much like how the Church chose December 25th based on trying to take advantage of existing holidays and build off them, they chose February 14th for St. Valentine's Day in the same way.  It was previously known as the feats of Lupercalia.  This was a raucous holiday known for feasting, drinking and well... lots and lots of sex.  But not really in a good way... Roman men would sacrifice an animal, usually a goat or a dog, then eat and drink before whipping women with strips of the hide of the sacrificed animals.  Not cool, eh?  But, the Romans thought that whipping the women with the hide of the sacrificed animal would increase their fertility.  This would in-turn increase the numbers of babies born, that would increase the numbers of Roman soldiers who could die for the state.  Yay state!  But in the end, a drunken orgy commenced and all the men were left happy, drunk and satisfied while the women were... well, not.  Talk about white male privilege now?  We got nothing on pagan Roman males.  Just like the Pagan holiday that Christmas took over, the Christian church said, "let's take this and make it better!" -- one could say they were like the Microsoft of the ancient world... they didn't really create anything, but they took good ideas and made them better!  So they took the day, cleaned up the idea behind it and voila!  February 14th became the Christian holiday that surrounded love, marriage and creating a family. (nudge, nudge, wink, wink)

Translate to today, please?
Well, we all now know that the roots for the holiday sit firmly within St. Valentine's martyrdom (we Christians LOVE a good martyr) for marrying young Christians against the Roman Empire's decree, and it replaced a violent pagan tradition -- it took the one, the only Geoffrey Chaucer to actually begin to make it romantic...

"For this was on seynt Bolantynys day,
Whan every bryd comyth there to chese make."

Yup, that's the English of the period... but when it means is this, and there is no cheese involved...

"For this was on St. Valentine's Day,
When every bride come there to choose its mate."

OK, so there is probably the earliest "modern" reference to 2/14 being a hot and heavy, yet not-whippy, holiday.  Well... I mean, if you're into whips, who am I to judge... but I digress.  This poem was likely written to commemorate something that took place a bit after the actual Valentine's Day that we celebrate today, but point was made anyway.  Bottom line: Valentine's Day is romantic, boom.  You might be thinking, why would ONE poem make a day something.  Remember that pretty much no one could read at this time... and printing books was kind of a new thing.  So when something actually GOT printed, it was recited for entertainment and Chaucer was kind of a rock star.  It would be like Beyonce deciding Valentine's Day was the bomb and doing an album about it today.

And then, a couple of hundred years later... there was this from one of the most popular plays The Bard wrote and produced.  Yes, in Hamlet, William Shakespeare had our sad heroin, Ophelia sing:

"Tomorrow is Saint Valentine's dat,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine."

Whoa!  Shakespeare just created the modern idea of a "valentine."  To long after someone, and wish them to be "yours" is now a valentine!  And the mid-19th century the idea of Valentine's Day and romance, gifts, love, and all the other lovey dovey stuff was firmly established as custom and tradition.  Later int he 19th century, as printing became more common and affordable, hand-written letters professing love and adoration were replaced by greeting cards and "valentines" that we know today.

So, this Valentine's Day... sacrifice a goat and whip you mate in the name of historical accuracy!  And don't forget the chocolate...

Bruce holds a degrees in Computer Science, Biblical History and American History from Temple University, Liberty University and American Public University.  He is a member of the Historical Studies Honor Society and the Saber and Scroll Society.  He has worked in educational technology for over 20 years, specializes in building infrastructures for schools that work to support the mission of technology in education in the classroom.  He also has served as a classroom teacher in Computer Science, History and English classes.  

Be on the lookout for Towering Pines Volume Two: The Sound and the Fury, and Starbound (working name) which are currently a works in progress.