The history behind Valentines Day

It's time to get romantic

It's time to get romantic - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Delving into the past with Chris Hallam

I’m probably going to sound very grumpy now, but I’ve never been much of a fan of St Valentine’s Day. For single people – I’m thinking particularly of lovelorn teenagers – not receiving a card every year can be a regular source of misery.

There’s nothing wrong with being single, of course but for those unhappy to be in that situation, February 14th provides a regular and unwelcome reminder of their status. For those in a relationship, however, the day is largely an irrelevance.

If the couple are happy and in love why should they need a card or a bunch of flowers to confirm it? The day lacks the personal element of an anniversary or a birthday too. It is the same day for everyone, hence why in normal times, it’s difficult to book a table in a restaurant on that date.

On the other hand, I can see the advantages of giving or receiving a card if you’re attempting to woo someone.

For this alone, St Valentine’s Day is almost worth it. But even then, if you really want to ask someone out (or wryly hint at it by sending a card ‘anonymously,’ a gesture that is ultimately pointless unless the recipient can work out who it’s from) shouldn’t you just make your move anyway? There’s no point waiting until February 14.

As with many supposedly Christian traditions, St Valentine’s Day was basically co-opted from a pagan festival already in existence. The fertility festival of Lupercalia was celebrated between February 13 and 15 in ancient Rome and according to some accounts involved a lot of drinking, running around naked, hitting women with leather straps in a bid to increase their fertility levels and sacrificing goats and dogs. Just like a typical Valentine’s today then! (JOKE)

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In the third century AD, the Roman Claudius II had two men both called Valentine executed. In due course, both were beatified as Christian martyrs and Pope Gelasius declared St Valentine’s a Christian feast day in 496AD. Which of the two men did he mean? Did he mean both? What had they done anyway? The truth remains unclear. At any rate, in the Christian world the new festival came to take over from the pagan one.

By medieval times, Geoffrey Chaucer was writing of the engagement of King Richard II to Anne of Bohemia in 1382: “For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh to choose his mate.” It seems to have been Chaucer who drew a link between the feast day and courting rituals for the first time.

Charles, Duke of Orleans referred to his love for his wife as “my very sweet Valentine” over thirty years later. In Hamlet, Shakespeare put the following words into Ophelia’s mouth at the start of the 17th century, as she laments to Hamlet: “To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day, All in the morning betime, And I a maid at your window, To be your Valentine.” A bit later, John Donne wrote: “This day more cheerfully than ever shine, This day which might inflame thy selfe old Valentine."

By the late 18th century, there was sufficient demand for a book called The Young Man's Valentine Writer to be published. The 1797 volume was full of suggested verses with which young men could use to woo their prospective partners. Letters began to evolve into cards. By 1835, 60,000 Valentine cards were being sent by post.

This was before the introduction of the Penny Post in 1840. With postage rates reduced, mass-produced greetings cards soon followed, alongside special heart-shaped boxes of chocolates, flower orders and all the other elements which have made St Valentine’s Day the massive commercial industry it is today. In 2015, it was estimated just under half of the UK population spent a total of £1.9 billion on Valentine’s cards.

So that’s all for this week. To end with a verse: Roses are red, volets are blue. Read this page each week and learn something new!

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