Happy Valentine’s Day!
Did you give your special someone a card today? Some chocolates, perhaps, or flowers? Have you booked a restaurant for an intimate meal for two? Such gestures have become traditional on Valentine’s Day, thanks in great part to clever marketing. Stores have been festooned with pink and red decorations for weeks, featuring prominently the symbol for love: the heart.
Of course, you may resist the commercialism of Valentine’s Day, and make it a day for simple, heartfelt romance – just for letting your loved one know how much you care. But still, there is that fundamental association of this day with romantic love.
But from where did this association spring? Why celebrate on the fourteenth of February? And who was Saint Valentine?
In fact, there were two Valentines: Valentine of Rome and Valentine of Terni. Valentine of Rome was a priest and Valentine of Terni was a bishop. Both were martyred in the third century. Little is actually known about them, and attempts to tie Saint Valentine to his modern-day association with romance step into the realm of legend. He performed secret marriages, we are told, when the Emperor outlawed marriage for young soldiers; he fell in love with a young woman himself and wrote her a letter on the eve of his execution signed ‘from your Valentine’ – the very first Valentine.
In fact, the feast day of Saint Valentine had no romantic connotations until Geoffrey Chaucer came along in the fourteenth century. He wrote a poem to honour King Richard II of England’s engagement to Anne of Bohemia in which he referenced spring birds mating.
For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.
(For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.)
It came to be known that 14th February marked the beginning of birds’ mating season, and thus the day become associated with making and honouring romantic matches.
The oldest known Valentine is a poem by Charles, Duke of Orleans, written in 1415 for his wife. It opened as follows:
Je suis desja d’amour tanné
Ma tres doulce Valentinée
(I am already sick of love,
My very gentle Valentine)
A rather unromantic declaration, but then the Duke wrote the poem in a bleak situation: he was imprisoned in the Tower of London.
Come the sixteenth century, Valentine’s Day was featuring in Shakespeare’s works:
To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.
(Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 5)
In the same century, Edmund Spenser wrote in The Faerie Queene a line that would inspire many a Valentine’s Day ode to come:
She bath’d with roses red, and violets blew
In the eighteenth century, people would exchange notes and small handmade gifts on Valentine’s Day, and by the nineteenth century the printing press was producing cards. In the US, a lady named Esther Howland from Massachusetts pioneered the creation of highly decorative cards, importing lace and floral adornments from England. Her cards, made for friends, were so popular she began taking orders, and eventually the little creative pursuit she had started at home grew into a big business grossing $100,000 per year. Inspirational!
The rest, as they say, is history. Esther Howland’s success story inspired countless others to produce cards and gifts for Valentine’s Day, and a couple of hundred years later we have stores all over festooned with those red and pink decorations.
The meaning of the day need not be lost in a shower of heart-shaped confetti, however. To borrow from Lennon and McCartney, ‘Love is all you need.’