While I’m suspicious of that other holiday celebrating love, Sweetest Day, that almost always catches me unaware in the middle of October — a day, I believe, that’s a concoction of the confectionary, floral and greeting card folks to boost their sales — I really don’t have any objections with Thursday’s holiday that celebrates most people’s favorite emotion, love.
I suppose what separates Valentine’s Day from that third Saturday in October pretender is its venerable legitimacy. While Sweetest Day really is only acknowledged in certain sectors of the country, primarily the Midwest and Northeast, and traces its origins only back to the 1920s when it was introduced in Cleveland, Valentine’s Day crosses European borders and has its vestiges evident all the way back to ancient Rome.
This coming weekend when the work week takes its weekly holiday, I’ll bestow my offerings to Lady Jane, some combination of fancy eats and candies and flowers, the traditional offerings for a traditional country girl.
But beyond whatever gestures by men and women alike are offered in the next few days to acknowledge Valentine’s Day and especially Cupid’s excellent archery skills, what have historians learned about Valentine’s Day?
Well, after a little knocking around on the Internet on your behalf, especially on the website History.com (an affiliate of the same History Channel I have come to enjoy so much over the years), I’ve discovered that Thursday is a holiday wrapped in more than a few layers of mystery, much more so than any other holiday we pause to acknowledge.
As for the Christian influences of the holiday, the fact is there are not one but three different saints named Valentinus, or Valentine, and all three were martyred.
One legend has it that Valentine was a priest in third century Rome who defied Emperor Claudius’ decree that young men not marry (Claudius’ believed they would make far better soldiers should they remain single) by performing marriages, for which he was put to death.
Another legend has it that Valentine may have been killed for trying to help imprisoned Christians escape harsh Roman prisons, where beatings and torture were common.
Yet another legend has it that Valentine himself was imprisoned and fell in love with his jailer’s daughter, who regularly visited him in prison. As the story goes, it was Valentine who sent what would be considered the first Valentine’s Day card ever when he wrote her a letter proclaiming his love and signed it, “From your Valentine.”
While there is indeed lots of murkiness surrounding these Valentine’s Day legends, all stories have a common thread, one that shows appeal, especially in England and France, that fueled the saint’s popularity.
Some historians actually feel the roots of Valentine’s Day trace themselves back to the ancient pagan Roman holiday of Lupercalia, a fertility festival dedicated to the Roman god of agriculture, Faunus, and to the founders of Rome, Remus and Romulus, in the fifth century.
There’s additional murkiness as to why Tuhrsday’s big love-fest falls in the middle of February. Some believe it’s because it acknowledges the anniversary of Valentine’s death that occurred around 270 AD. However, there’s also the belief that the Christian church perhaps placed the holiday there to try to Christianize that pagan holiday of Lupercalia, one eventually outlawed as un-Christian by the end of the fifth century, when Pope Gelasius declared Feb. 14 as St. Valentine’s Day.
It would be years later before, in France and England, the day would be associated with love. That notion came because Feb. 14 was believed to be the start of birds’ mating season.
As for the oldest written Valentine’s Day sentiment that still exists, well, that can be documented. It’s kept in London’s British Library and was written by the French Noble Charles, Duke of Orleans, a love letter written to his wife during his incarceration in the Tower of London in the 15th century.
By the middle of the 18th century, exchanging tokens of affection took root in England and France on Feb. 14. As for America, well, we began a bit earlier, exchanging hand-made valentines early in the 18th century. The first mass-produced Valentine’s cards wouldn’t appear until the mid-19th century.
According to figures promulgated by the Greeting Card Association, a billion cards will be purchased and given this year, making it second only to Christmas and the 2.6 billion cards that acknowledge that holy and joyous day. However, as any parent and grandparent knows, there is nothing sweeter and more meaningful than the homemade Valentine’s Day cards crafted by tiny hands at kitchen tables and on tops of school desks.
So, if you haven’t taken care of that card and planned your tokens yet, time’s a ticking! Get that addressed today, and when it comes to Thursday’s dress, incorporate a little red.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.