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Valentine’s Day: Its Gory, Unromantic Secret History

The origin of Valentine’s Day has nothing to do with love and everything to do with “torturous martyrdom.” On second thought, perhaps the origin of Valentine’s Day has a great deal to do with love.

The origin of Valentine’s Day has nothing to do with love and everything to do with “torturous martyrdom.” On second thought, perhaps the origin of Valentine’s Day has a great deal to do with love. *

Originally, the feast day of St. Valentine remembered two 3rd century martyrs by the name of Valentine who were elevated to sainthood in the early middle ages. Both Valentines—one the Bishop of Terni and the other a priest in Rome—were allegedly decapitated by their persecutors on February 14.  

Incidentally, St. Valentine (as the two Valentines seem to have merged into one figure by the 9th century) is the patron saint of epileptics, not lovers.

Medieval miracle plays based on the Bishop of Terni Valentine show him brutally beaten, bloodied, and decapitated before angels transport him to heaven. It really puts you in a mood for love.

According to author Leigh E. Schmidt, several locales in Europe claimed Terni’s relics, as they were widely dispersed. Several different shrines claimed possession of his skull.

There was no link between St. Valentine’s Day and love until the 14th century. At that time, some scholars claim that Chaucer associated Valentine’s Day with lovers by describing it as the day on which birds select their mates.

More plausibly, writes Elizabeth White Nelson, the tradition of expressing love on Valentine’s Day comes from the Roman festival of Lupercalia, a fertility rite held on February 15.  Typically, the medieval church would try to combine saints’ feast days with pagan festivals, to boost Church loyalty and participation.

Whatever the reasons, by the 1500s the link between Valentine’s Day, courtship, and love was established.  The religious meanings of the day faded; its amorous meanings grew.

Rituals emerged in Europe in the 1600s and 1700s to divine future spouses on Valentine’s Day. Some young people went to churchyards at midnight to await an omen, but drawing lots was the most common practice of divination. Clergyman Henry Bourne explained in 1725, “it is a ceremony, …to draw Lots, which they term Valentines….The names of a select number of one Sex, are by an equal Number of the other put into some Vessel; and, after that, every one draws a Name, which for the present is called their Valentine, and is also look’d upon as good Omen of their Man and Wife afterwards.”

The “drawing lots” ceremony could get ugly, and vicious. In France this celebration of the lottery of love became fractious. In France, explains Elizabeth White Nelson, once the valentines had been chosen, the woman prepared a meal for the man, and they attended a public dance. If the man was displeased, he would leave her, and she would remain in seclusion for eight days.

But, at the end of this time, “all the women who had been spurned gathered in the town square and burned their valentines in effigy.”

This carnival of romantic revenge often escalated into riots, such that in 1776 the French parliament outlawed the ritual, and it had practically disappeared by the 1810s.

When Valentine’s Day migrated to the United States, it was well established as a holiday for love, but was scarcely observed in the 1700s.

Then, in the 1840s and 1850s there was a “valentine’s epidemic.” Cards were flying through the penny post, and “Valentine” came to denote the card, not the person. Dismayed defenders of the faith felt that the penny post valentine cheapened affection, and joked that many a postal carrier was crushed under his bag of cheaply-produced letters strewn with cooing birds and hearts.

A rich, hilarious world of romantic charivari—an Anti-Valentine’s tradition—developed parallel to the ornately sentimental and sincere valentines.  The first card manufacturers offered “comic” valentines that engaged in “ritualized mockery” and insult.  These cards ridiculed professions—members of a certain craft, for example—but mostly lampooned old maids, social poseurs, male dandies who refused to marry, and feminists. Read one card of the 1850s (reprinted in Schmidt’s book):

You ugly, cross, and wrinkled shrew,

You advocate of woman’s rights,

No man on earth would live with you

For fear of endless fights

Another features the devil pitch-forking an old maid. “The End of the Old Maids,” it began:

Oh what a very sorry sight it is,

to see an aged lady still a Miss,

to know that single she must live and work,

and in the end be toasted on a fork.

The influential Godey’s magazine decried that these mock valentines were “so gross and disgusting that it would seem only savages or brutes could have prepared them.”  

They couldn’t quibble with the sales, however. Surprisingly, the cultural undertow of satirical, mock valentines sold just as briskly as the tenderly affectionate ones.  Even in the putatively more sincere Victorian age of intricate, lacey, effusive cards, Valentine’s Day had an unromantic, sardonic alter ego.

Purists in the 1840s and 1850s saw even the more sentimental commercial cards as “an abomination,” opined the Philadelphia Public Ledger. “What satisfaction is it to a lady to receive a printed declaration, embossed and gilded according to a set pattern, and which is a precise facsimile of fifty thousand others which she knows to have been sent to half the young ladies in the town?” Another essayist in 1845 called valentine’s cards “a vile variety of the bribe kind—the most cutting form of dismissal” in its lack of authenticity or spontaneity.

To manage the paradox that a generic, mass-produced valentine was being asked to convey a heartfelt, singular emotion, a whole new business emerged of “valentine writer books.” These books provided verses that could be copied into a valentine and presented as the sender’s own words, and unique creation. Elizabeth White Nelson describes a book in which two of the poems of prepared verse are marked with the names of two women, one in pencil and one in pen, both in the same hand.

So, all you cranks and cynics take heart:  Valentine’s Day had a decidedly unromantic genesis, and even after the holiday got alloyed to romantic love, it had its own subversive, cynical undertow right from the start, whether it be the riots and effigies of failed love, the charivari mockery valentines, or the valentine writer’s plagiary book to achieve “authentic” expression.


* I draw this material from three scholarly sources that include material on Valentine’s Day: Leigh E. Schmidt, Consumer Rites; Elizabeth White Nelson, Market Sentiments; and Frank Staff, The Valentine and its Origins.

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