The History of Valentine’s Day

This week we’re preparing for Romance’s favorite holiday, Valentine’s Day. Of course, the most romantic of us, our dear Janet, has the day and I’m certain she will handle it with respect and decorum…..ahem….

Most of what we know of St. Valentine’s Day is legend, including the belief that Valentine’s Day originated in the Roman festival of Lupercalia, in which, among other things, young men ran naked through the streets striking anyone who came in their way with shaggy thongs, whatever they are. Women purposely got in their way, because it was believed that being struck by naked men wielding shaggy tongs would increase fertility or guarantee safe childbirth.

There were about three Saint Valentines, but legend has it that the one attached to the celebration of love was a second century AD priest . Roman Emperor Claudius II believed unmarried men made better soldiers, so he banned soldiers from marrying. St. Valentine defied the emperor and married soldiers in secret. Valentine was caught and imprisoned, but he continued to do good deeds, like curing the blindness of his jailer’s daughter. He also is said to have penned a note to his sweetheart signed “from your Valentine,” and supposedly was executed on February 14. All that is really known of him is that he was made a saint by the early church.

The first mention of St. Valentine’s Day associated with romantic love comes from Chaucer’s poem, Parlement of Foules, written to honor the anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia.

For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make

Likely Chaucer was referring to a different St. Valentine’s Day, because the engagement took place on May 2. Later scholars assumed Chaucer’s poem meant February 14, but English birds have always been smart enough to wait for warmer weather to mate.

Here’s a fun fact. In 1400, a High Court of Love was established in Paris. It dealt with love contracts, betrayals, and violence against women. (Happy Valentine’s Day, mesdames)

The French also have the claim to fame of writing the first Valentine. Of course, it was written in London. Imprisoned in the Tower of London after the Battle of Agincort, the Duke of Orleans wrote a poem to his wife:

Je suis desja d’amour tanné; Ma tres doulce Valentinée…
(Charles d’Orléans, Rondeau VI, lines 1–2)

Ophelia (1601) mentions St. Valentine’s Day in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Pepys mentions Valentine’s Day, as well. By this time (mid-1600s) the tradition of giving gifts to ladies seems to have taken hold.

Sending love letters or specially made Valentines became a tradition by the late 1700s, continuing into “our” period, the Regency. In the 1840’s an enterprising American woman, Esther Howland, whose father owned a stationary store, had the idea of mass producing these Valentine’s Day love letters and the Valentine’s Day Card was born. To this day the Greeting Card Association gives an annual Esther Howland Award to the year’s best greeting card visionary.

What are your Valentine’s Day traditions?

*Sources of information: Wikipedia Valentine’s Day and Answers.com

About diane

Diane Gaston is the RITA award-winning author of Historical Romance for Harlequin Historical and Mills and Boon, with books that feature the darker side of the Regency. Formerly a mental health social worker, she is happiest now when deep in the psyches of soldiers, rakes and women who don’t always act like ladies.
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Cara King
14 years ago

Traditions? Um…I like to go to the store the day after to get cheap chocolate… 🙂

And I admit I do have a fondness for red heart-shaped boxes. (Though what comes inside is generally not my favorite form of candy.)

And flowers are always nice…

Cara

Susan Wilbanks
14 years ago

No real Valentine’s Day traditions here, either. My husband and I don’t do anything for each other, since it seems like Christmas and my birthday are only just over, though before our daughter was born we used to take advantage of the fact we get President’s Day off at work (state employees, woo!) and go to a B&B on one of the local islands for the weekend.

Today my daughter’s preschool teacher told me they’re celebrating V-Day in their class and she’ll have a list this afternoon with all the kids’ names for cards and so we can sign up for treats. Frankly, I’m grumpy about it, because if they’d told us LAST week I could’ve bought the cards at Target over the weekend, and now I don’t know when I’m going to find time.

Elena Greene
14 years ago

Count me as a Valentine’s Curmudgeon too, Susan! I felt sick over the weekend and had to run out today with my youngest to get cards. What a pain. But she is excited about it, though I think it’s as much about the package of Twizzlers we bought as anything else.

I find it interesting that public schools have replaced Halloween and Christmas parties with generic fall and winter parties but they keep St. Valentine’s Day. And why elementary school kids are roped into what used to be a celebration of romantic love kind of eludes me!

But it’s not a battle worth fighting, I guess. And I like the candy, too. 🙂

Diane Gaston
14 years ago

accckk! Susan and Elena, I remember those Valentine school days, always more of a chore than anything else. At least in my children’s schools they were required to give Valentines to everyone. I can still remember feeling the pain of my classmates who only got one or two.

Maybe it was those schoolday Valentines that soured us Romance writers on this most romantic of holidays. My husband and I don’t celebrate V day either. (altho I do have a card for him.)

Ladyhawk
14 years ago

It has always bothered me that I could buy myself a dozen roses for $10-15 any time of the year but Valentines, when it kicks up to $40-60. I’ve been dateless for so long, I suspect I’ve completely forgotten how, so I try to do something nice for me (when I’m not trying to ignore the day completely. LOL!)
Judy T

doglady
14 years ago

Hey, ladyhawk, that sounds like a great idea to me! I am fortunate enough to have two great brothers, one of whom has taken over the Valentine’s honors for my mother and myself as we are both widows. He always sends us roses and a big box of Godiva’s chocolates for Valentine’s Day. My late dh loved Valentine’s Day and we always gave each other gifts of books, CDs, and really pretty cards.

Diane Gaston
14 years ago

Sigh, doglady, your husband was one of the rare ones…. your brother ain’t so bad either.

Judy, so smart of you to do something for yourself. We need to love ourselves, first of all.

Amanda McCabe
14 years ago

“Um…I like to go to the store the day after to get cheap chocolate.”

This sounds like a GREAT tradition to me! 🙂 I went to the Godiva store last weekend and treated myself to dark chocolate raspberry truffles. And I like to watch “Romeo and Juliet” in V-Day.

doglady
14 years ago

Dark chocolate raspberry truffles ….. drool, drool, drool. I wonder if my brother has bought my Godiva’s box yet? Shame on you, Amanda! Leading me down the road to sin and iniquity. Can we go any faster???

Yes, Diane, Roger was a very rare specimen in this century – a truly romantic, heroic gentleman. Is it any wonder I’ve never even thought about remarrying?

Both of my brothers are pretty good guys, but the older of the two takes his role as the “patriarch” of the family very seriously.

Simone
14 years ago

aw, what an informative post!!!
For me on Vday there is nothing better than a warm, intimate dinner at home (as laid back as possible, in my opinion!) I just believe that it is so, soo important to have a day where you focus on your loved one and letting them know how much they mean to you. I just so happen to have the inside scoop on a fantastic contest about love and expressing love going on right now that you ladies should definitely take a quick peek at sometime; I work for Dove Chocolates (perfect for this time of year, huh? haha) and we have this contest going on right now called the “Expressions of Love” contest, where we’re basically asking ladies like you to submit their most creative ideas for letting someone know you love them…and get this, the winner will receive a 5.58cts “Baby’s Breath” diamond necklace worth $21,000!! THAT would definitely be a nice trinket to open on Vday 😉 I’d definitely love to have some ladies like you who really do care about Valentine’s day enter, so feel free to go to http://www.mydovechocolate.com and leave your most creative submission!
We also have these ridiculously adorable customizable boxes of chocolates available for Vday this year, so if you’re trying to think of cute gift ideas, definitely take a look 😉
Thank you ladies, hope you all have a wonderful Valentine’s Day, and let me know if you enter! :0)

Diane Gaston
14 years ago

Simone,
Thank you for visiting us! And for telling about that fantastic contest. Just mentioning that you worked for Dove Chocolates was enough for me!

Keira Soleore
14 years ago

This comment has been removed by the author.

Rob W.
14 years ago

My wife and I rent the worst movie from the year before, hopefully bad enough to laugh at (think Showgirls-level bad), bring in a good pizza and open a really good bottle of wine, and…

Lois
14 years ago

Just getting my hands on chocolate, if possible! LOL 🙂

Lois