The Holiday of Love, that ancient custom that keeps Cupid busy linking the world’s lovers, is upon us again — Valentine’s Day.
Men buy greeting cards, flowers and chocolates for their sweethearts, the gals select ties for their fellows, and kids send valentines to their “secret pals,” favorite teachers and parents in a custom that will find millions of cards flowing through the mails.
Although the origin is cloudy, tradition tells us it all began in pagan Rome about 250 A.D., when a priest named Valentinus, bishop of Spoleto, was put to death on Feb. 14 by Emperor Claudius II for refusing to renounce Christianity. Valentinus, later named a saint, had preached that love was a fine basis for marriage and sent a farewell to his friend, the jailer’s blind daughter, who had befriended him, signing it “From your Valentine.” Thus, the first “valentine” was boom.
In 496, Pope Gelasius established Feb. 14 as St. Valentine’s Day to be a festive Christian occasion for young, unwed persons. During the 14th and 15th centuries folks believed birds mated on Feb. 14. Eventually, Valentine’s Day and Mating Day, the one for the birds, became one.
It was about 1400 that the first written valentine appeared. Charles, Duke of Orleans, reportedly sent one to his love while he was a prisoner in the Tower of London.
Exchange of love poems, sweet sayings and gifts seemed to grow quickly after that, as did the oddness surrounding the event. Young men in Elizabethan England threw an apple or orange with valentine attached through the window of any eligible women they adored. Women ate the whites of hard-boiled eggs on Valentine’s Eve and fastened bay leaves to their pillows in hopes of dreaming of future husbands. Frenchmen sent sweethearts huge, homemade lace-edged valentines.
But all was not sweet and smooth. In the 16th century, St. Francis de Sales, leader of the church in England, criticized valentines as immoral and forbade their use.
As church opposition relented, commercial valentines began to appear in the 1800s to relieve the task of composing and making such greetings. They became the custom in the United States about 1850, with lacey hearts and flowery type, although the verse was cautious and even shy, a far cry from later racy writings. Reports are that in 1857 about 3 million valentines were delivered for Feb. 14.
The oldest known valentines in this nation, however, date to the early 1700s and were small cards with German script. World Book Encyclopedia said they might have been made by monks and nuns.
One of the first large makers of valentines was Esther Rowland of Worcester, Mass., who reportedly controlled the market in the mid-1800s. Ironically, she died a spinster in 1904, never finding her own valentine.
Although comic cards still exist, the insulting “vinegar” valentines of the late 1800s and early 1900s have all but been replaced by sophisticated and sentimental verse, new art forms and finishing, fine paper, elaborate patterns, pop-up designs and – senders may hope – heart-winning appearance.
As relationships continue, valentine’s greetings grow. It is safe to say that when the big day rolls around, cupid and the world’s mail deliverers will be busy hauling milions of love notes fom heart to hearth.