The History of Valentine's Day

The History of Valentine's Day

by Shannon Summers
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Valentine's Day has a special place in my heart. It isn't just that seeing February 14 on the calendar reminds me of pounds of chocolates I've gleefully consumed or stacks of red cards I've swooned over and tucked safely away. No, it's because one February 14, when I was an exchange student in Paris, I received a bouquet of pink carnations from a British boy I'd met on an airplane. Intrigued, I canceled my rendezvous with a dashing Parisian named Patrique. Best romantic impulse I ever had. That British boy is now my husband, father of our two-year-old son, Sebastian, and his sibling-to-be. He's still the one I ask to be mine every February. St. Valentine would approve.

In all his incarnations (and there are many), St. Valentine is a champion of true love and courtship, a Christian who gave holy sanction to ancient Roman rites honoring romance and fertility. Those rites, dating back to long before Christ's time, originally paid tribute to the Roman crop god, Faunus, whose festival of Lupercalia was on February 15. On Lupercalia Eve, Roman youths would draw virgins' names from an urn, then squire their chosen maiden for the fete. The main event? A ceremony in which the young women vied to be touched with sacred goatskin thongs called februa (yes, that's as in February).

Naturally, later-day Christian authorities frowned upon such goings-on. But even when Christianity became the official religion of Rome in the fourth century, church fathers couldn't persuade people that these traditions weren't fun enough to risk purgatory for. So they did the only sensible thing: They incorporated Lupercalia into the Christian calendar as St. Valentine's Day.

Was there an actual man named Valentine? One legend suggests he was a third-century priest who defied Emperor Claudius II. Claudius, a curmudgeon and warmonger, banned marriage to keep his male population temperamentally disposed toward soldiering. According to legend, Valentine performed secret marriages for soldiers and their sweethearts until he was discovered and put to death. Another story suggests that while he was in prison for helping persecuted Christians, Valentine restored the sight of his jailor's blind daughter. The two conducted a clandestine correspondence until the eve of his execution, when he wrote her a letter pledging undying love and signed it with his name, "your Valentine."

Since those times, Valentine has evolved into a character we know less as a historic figure and more as a collection of symbols--cupids, red roses, doves and, of course, hearts. Come February, these hearts, the targets of Cupid's arrows and the emotional center of the anatomy (at least in poetic tradition), are everywhere, especially on cards. For those, we can thank the Victorians. Until that era, sweethearts typically sent handwritten notes, but advances in printing technology made possible mass production of elaborate cards. In a repressive culture that discouraged direct expressions of love, the availability of cards set off a spree: Sweethearts began to buy cards for each other on a scale unprecedented for any correspondence item in history.

We can also thank the Victorians for including children in Valentine's Day. With their cards, the Victorians democratized the holiday, making it accessible to anyone with a pencil and a chum. Victorian children's scrapbooks contributed to the craze for paper lace (doilies) and for sentimental pictures that could be cut up and glued into the books' pages or into cards.

Today's kids are no less enchanted by the holiday. The hugs and kisses, the cuteness, the candy(!) and, most of all, the excuse to express love play into a child's natural affections. Last year, my son, Sebastian (at 20 months), pasted my chopped-up faux pearl necklace onto a paper heart for his dad. A middle-school-aged buddy gave her girlfriends heart barrettes. And our teenage baby-sitter baked brownies--with red icing, no less.

For parents, making valentines with your kids is as sweet as it gets. At our house, this promises to be the best Valentine's Day yet. Sebastian is already plotting "a red candy bulldozer" for his new sibling, who should be putting in an appearance around the time februas start flying. I imagine the arrival of our second baby will remind my husband and me of the significance that St. Valentine has for us. In our house, after all, the chance to celebrate romance is always welcome.

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