Love-hearts, roses, everything pink and red… it must be St Valentine’s Day.
As far as annual celebrations go, St Valentine’s is a bit of an odd one. Anyone vaguely Christian does Christmas and Easter; New Years and Australia Day are for everyone. Hallowe’en, I’ll admit, is mostly for the kids but there’s still room for more grown-up activities. And then there’s February 14th. Couples give each other sentimental gifts and primary school kids give each other handmade cards. And if you’re too old for the latter and too single for the former, well…
St Valentine’s Day is for couples (primary school arts & crafts aside). It’s a celebration of romantic love and relationships. But even more so it’s a day of sentimentality. I think a lot of people would agree that while the concept’s all well and good, the rampant commercialisation of the whole thing makes it much easier to be tacky than tasteful. I mean, who really needs a huge teddy-bear holding a satin love-heart? Or a dozen excessively rich chocolates in a heart-shaped box? Or enormous heart-shaped helium balloons?
This all had me wondering about Valentine’s Day before the era of Hallmark cards; before we could fly planeloads of roses in from another country. Being an armchair historian, I set out to do some research…
(Now, are you sitting comfortably?)
St Valentine’s Day is ostensibly a commemoration of an early Christian martyr named Valentine, or Valentinus in Latin. The trouble is that there’s more than one Saint Valentine and we don’t know very much about any of them. As to the association with romantic love, it probably came about during the Middle Ages. The earliest known reference to it is by Geoffrey Chaucer, in a poem written in 1382. It was apparently linked to a belief that birds seek out their mates on February 14th*.
By the (late) 14th and 15th centuries, writers make allusion to established Valentine’s Day customs. French and English authors both describe it as a day for lovers, when letters and gifts are exchanged. That’s more or less what we’re still doing. The earliest surviving valentine was written by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife in 1415. The earliest Anglophone example was written by a Margery Brewes for her fiancé in 1477. Both of these valentines were written in poetic verse, a gesture considered highly romantic today.
Our gift expectations haven’t changed that much either. A brooch, ring or other piece of jewellery made an appropriate love-token in medieval times. Particularly ardent admirers would usually have the item engraved. More practical accessories such as belts or even boot-spurs were also presented as gifts. A wealthy suitor might buy his sweetheart finely-crafted combs, purses, jewellery boxes or even a pair of shoes. Poorer couples would apparently exchange miniature replicas of these items, as a kind of good-luck charm. It’s funny how mass celebrations bring out class disparities.
By the late 16th century (Elizabethan era), gloves had become a popular gift from men to women. A tradition arose wherein a women would approach a man she fancied and recite the verse: Good-morrow Valentine, I go today; To wear for you, what you must pay; A pair of gloves next Easter Day. If her feelings were reciprocated, the man would then buy her gloves to wear on Easter Sunday. Sometimes a man would send gloves uninitiated and if the woman wore them he was in her favour. I wonder how many were tempted to wear the gloves simply because they liked them.
Another tradition was created in the early 17th Century. On Valentine’s Day the unmarried women of a community would all place their names in a jar. Bachelors would then draw names and see whom fate had paired them with. While this wasn’t intended as a way to arrange matches, paired couples were expected to at least pay some attention to each other. Unsurprisingly, the custom soon turned into a light-hearted game in which all adults and children could participate.
In the year 1640, something amusingly predictable happened**. A small book was published entitled Cupid’s Messenger. It was a book of poems, filled with romantic thoughts and crafted in flowery language. It’s purpose was to aid the less-than-eloquent Valentine in making their appeal of the heart. (I think it’s worth noting that a contemporary of this book was one Cyrano de Bergerac.) By 1614 poetic valentines often appeared in magazines and articles, implying that the tradition had become far more public.
Then, in February 1667, the first hint of a familiar trend appeared. Samuel Pepys records in his diary that he received a surprise valentine from his wife. He describes it as a love-note written in gold lettering on pastel blue paper. The message was in a child’s handwriting (one of their own children?) and had been carefully cut out. A handmade valentine like this would not be out of place today. Indeed it would be a good deal more appreciated than a Hallmark card from the post office.
By the 18th century stylized Valentine’s Day cards had become popular in Germany. Apparently it was the Prussians who first thought to add fancy lace borders and cutout red love-hearts, which is not something I would have expected. The fashion soon spread to France and England, and at some point baby-boy Cupids also began to appear. Then came love-doves, smiling couples, various flowers and many other romantic motifs. Towards the end of the 18th century, some Germans capitalized on the idea by selling handmade lovers’ cards, which were intricately decorated. Once more, the concept soon spread to France and England.
During the Victorian era the craze really took off. St Valentine’s Day produced droves of carefully hand-crafted cards. Delicate, watermarked paper was popular. So was decorative silk, satin, lace and chiffon. Cutout motifs such as cupids, doves, swans and, of course, the heart pierced by an arrow were often pasted on beside the handwritten message. As the industrial revolution took hold and printing methods became more and more efficient, valentine cards became even more readily available. Predictably, the mass-production of these tokens took some of the shine off them. The valentine card slowly fell out of favour.
It wasn’t until after World War One that the tradition managed to take off again. In 1925 an Englishwoman named Jeanetta Tuck suggested to her husband, who ran a greeting card shop, that he print some specialized cards for the month of February. Sir Adolph Tuck followed her advice and, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the customers snatched them up. The Tucks printed more Valentine’s Day cards and other businesses quickly followed suit. Hence the modern phenomenon which turns every post office red, white and pink in February!
And speaking of red, white and pink, where did this colour association come from? And what about love-hearts and roses? The red, pink and white seems to have no clear origin except the age-old symbolism of these colours. Red represents passion – of love and, especially in the Catholic church, sacrifice. This could have some relation to St Valentine the martyr, but probably had more to do with people expressing heart-felt emotions. White represents purity, innocence and devotion. After Queen Victoria was married in a white gown, it also took on an association with weddings. Pink hasn’t always been differentiated from red, but it has come to symbolize warmth and affection.
As for love-hearts, the way this particular shape came to represent affection is a meandering story of its own. Suffice to say they have a very ancient association with romance and, um… passion.
Roses are a flower of love and beauty in many cultures. The Victorians in particular were fond of floriography – the language of flowers. A red rose meant love and respect; pale pink meant grace and joy and white meant innocence and secrecy. A single, full rose bloom meant simply ‘I love you’. Obviously the red rose still holds this symbolism, but I wouldn’t mind if a few other floral messages came back into fashion. How nice it would be to receive lavender roses for enchantment, or orange ones for fascination!
So that’s my potted history of St Valentine’s Day. I hope that it’s provided some entertainment and maybe some inspiration. And remember that love isn’t seasonal; you can be sweet to someone all year round.
* This makes more sense if we take into consideration that the calendar has been much revised since Chaucer’s time, and February 14th fell later than it does now.
** I can’t be sure if this was the first time anyone thought of it, but it’s the earliest surviving instance.