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  • Writer's pictureAntique Ethos

Who Was the Romantic St Valentine !?!

February 14th is traditionally a day to express affection with greetings and gifts – all done in the name of Saint Valentine. But exactly who St Valentine was and why the day is linked to romance is shrouded in mystery. We do know that February has long been seen as the advent of spring – with pagan celebrations (Imbolc) and Roman festivals (Lupercalia), focusing on purification, health and fertility, dating to pre-Christian times.

The Feast of Saint Valentine to be celebrated on February 14th was actually established by Pope Gelasius I in AD 496 – in honour of Saint Valentine of Rome, a priest who was martyred in AD 269 for aiding persecuted Christians. St Bede’s 8th century account states that before his execution, he is reported to have performed a miracle by healing Julia, the blind daughter of his jailer Asterius. A later embellishment to this account, thought to have been added in the 18th century, includes that on the evening before Valentine was to be executed, he is supposed to have written the first valentine card himself – addressed to Julia and signed “Your Valentine”. According to legend, Julia planted a pink-blossomed almond tree near his grave – the almond tree remaining a symbol of abiding love and friendship.

Another later embellishment to Valentine’s story suggests that he performed clandestine Christian weddings for soldiers who were forbidden to marry. The Roman Emperor Claudius II supposedly forbade this believing that married men did not make good soldiers. Saint Valentine apparently wore a purple amethyst ring, which Roman soldiers would recognise and ask him to perform marriage for them. Possibly due to this association with Saint Valentine, amethyst has become the birthstone of February which is thought to attract love. According to legend, in order to remind these men of their vows and God's love, Saint Valentine is said to have cut hearts from parchment to give to these soldiers.

Whatever the truth of his story, it is not until the 14th century that we see the first recorded association of Valentine's Day with romantic love. This is believed to be in the “Parliament of Fowls” (1382) by Geoffrey Chaucer – written in honour of the first anniversary of the engagement of fifteen-year-old King Richard II of England to fifteen-year-old Anne of Bohemia. In this, Chaucer describes a dream vision portraying a parliament for birds to choose their mates – writing, “For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day / Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate”. Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls refers to a supposedly established tradition, but there is no written record of such a tradition before Chaucer. Although Valentine greetings may have existed in the Middle Ages, written Valentine’s did not begin to appear until after 1400. The oldest known written valentine still in existence today is a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Several years later, it is believed that King Henry V hired a writer named John Lydgate to compose a Valentine note to Catherine of Valois.

In 1797, a British publisher issued “The Young Man's Valentine Writer”, which contained scores of sentimental verses for the young lover unable to compose his own. Paper Valentines became so popular by the early 19th century that they were assembled in factories. In 1835, around 60,000 Valentine cards were sent by post in the United Kingdom, despite postage being expensive. A reduction in postal rates with the 1840 invention of the postage stamp (Penny Black) saw the number of posted Valentines increase, with 400,000 sent just one year after its invention. This ushered in the less personal but easier practice of mailing Valentines. Cards were exchanged anonymously – perhaps the reason for the sudden appearance of racy verse in an era otherwise prudishly Victorian. In 1868, the British chocolate company Cadbury created Fancy Boxes – a decorated box of chocolates in the shape of a heart for Valentine's Day. Boxes of filled chocolates quickly became associated with the day. In the second half of the 20th century, the practice of exchanging cards was extended to all manner of gifts.

Valentine's Day customs – sending greeting cards (known as “valentines”), offering confectionary and presenting flowers –spread throughout the English-speaking world in the 19th century. In the 1840s, Esther A. Howland began selling the first mass-produced valentines in America. Howland, known as the “Mother of the Valentine,” made elaborate creations with real lace, ribbons and colourful pictures. Today, according to the Greeting Card Association, an estimated 145 million Valentine’s Day cards are sent each year, making Valentine’s Day the second largest card-sending day of the year (after Christmas). In the later 20th and early 21st centuries, these customs spread to other countries and Valentine’s Day is now celebrated across most continents – with Singaporeans, Chinese and South Koreans spending the most money on Valentine's gifts.

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