The Ladies' Tea Guild

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The (brief) history of Valentine's Day.

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Valentine's Day has been celebrated in most Western countries for hundreds of years; like many Western traditions it has both a religious and secular side. Late winter and spring celebrations, including activities related to marriage and fertility, have been part of many cultures throughout time. Birds and animals choose their mates in the springtime, and with the brightening days and the approach of warmer weather, a general spirit of celebration and renewal seems natural to humans, as well.

In the ancient Roman and Celtic cultures, the season invoked some promiscuous sexual behaviors, especially among the young men and women. The Roman Saturnalia is said to have been accompanied by games in which the men and women would choose sexual partners for the next 12 months, to be changed again the next year. These orgies and activities were supposed to be scheduled as part of the worship of various Roman and other deities, especially those associated with fertility and the home. Cupid or Eros, as the son of the goddess Venus or Aphrodite, is a remnant of that era still remembered today.

The Valentine's Day holiday has become especially associated with the Victorian era. According to tradition, the holiday is named after at least two ancient Roman citizens. One story tells of the Roman Emperor Claudius II who thought that single men made more loyal, willing soldiers, and he forbade all the young men to marry, so that nothing would keep them from joining the army. A priest named Valentine defied the Emperor by performing secret marriage ceremonies for young couples, and was beheaded for his disobedience when he was finally caught. Because of his kindness and self-sacrifice, the local people petitioned to have him declared a saint, the patron saint of lovers.

Another story tells of another priest named Valentine who made friends with everyone he met, especially the local children. The Roman Emperor wanted to be worshipped as the god of the Roman Empire and Valentine was imprisoned because he wouldn’t comply with this order. While in prison, he remained the friend of children, even miraculously healing the jailer’s blind daughter. His young friends from town missed him and wrote love notes to him, tossing them through the window of his jail cell, and he wrote notes back to them, signing them (according to tradition), "from your Valentine". He was also later beheaded, and declared a saint, and the local people remembered his kindness and his miraculous healing of the jailer's daughter.

The date of February 14th became associated with St. Valentine and the older traditions in the year 496 A.D., when it was declared St. Valentine's Day by the Church. Religious activities marked this day, as with all other saints' days. A secular layer was added on February 14, 1415, when Charles, the Duke of Orleans, sent a rhymed love letter to his wife in France, from his cell in the Tower of London, where he was imprisoned after the Battle of Agincourt. Even William Shakespeare mentioned St. Valentine's Day, among Ophelia's lines in Hamlet.

By the Victorian era, the older Valentine's Day traditions associated with fertility and sexuality had been "gentrified" into more child-friendly, romantic, sentimental, and even spiritual activities. Many traditions involved fortune-telling, specifically to help young women find out who they would marry; potions to make him appear in dreams, curious items that represented his initials, and any number of cosmetics to attract him, were all associated with this holiday.
-- Sources: The World Book Encyclopedia, and From Your Valentine: Valentines from the Past, by Roselynn Ederer.

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Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,
Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round,
And, while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn
Throws up a steamy column, and the cups
That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each,
So let us welcome peaceful evening in.
-- William Cowper (1731-1800)
"The Winter Evening" (Book Four), _The Task_ (1784)