A brief history of St Valentine’s Day

Friday 9 January 2009

Have you ever wondered why we celebrate St Valentine’s Day on February 14 and why it is associated with lovers?

border Valentine heartsThe ancient Greeks and Romans held fertility festivals in mid-February. It has been suggested that the Christian church set St Valentine’s Day on the same date as these ancient festivals to convert pagans to Christianity. There were a number of Christian martyrs named Valentinus but there is no evidence that any were linked to the kind of courtly love we associate with St Valentine today.

In 1400 a “High Court of Love” was established in Paris on Valentine’s Day. The court dealt with love contracts, betrayals, and violence against women. Women would choose the judges on the basis of a poetry reading.

The earliest know valentine poem was written by Charles, Duke of Orleans for his wife, whilst he was being held captive in the Tower of London following the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. It begins:

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

In 1600 William Shakespeare has Ophelia mention Valentine’s Day in Hamlet:

To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.
(William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 5)

Early valentines would have been hand written but since the technology for printing predated William Shakespeare it is likely that printed valentines were also exchanged between lovers around his time.

The practice of sending Valentine’s cards is mentioned in Elizabeth Gaskell’s book “Mr. Harrison’s Confessions”, published in England in 1851.

In North American the first mass-produced valentines appeared in 1847. They were produced and sold by Esther Howland who was inspired by an English valentine that she had received.

Statistics from the U.S. Greeting Card Association suggest that more than a billion valentines are sent each year worldwide. This makes it the second largest annual card-sending holiday, the first being Christmas. They say that women purchase 85 percent of all valentines.

The illustration is Stitching Cards Border 1: Valentine hearts pattern.

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