Before it was ever associated with love, February 14th was a feast day held in Roman times to honour various martyred saints called Valentinus, in particular St Valentinus of Rome.
This Valentine was imprisoned for his faith in 269 and executed because he wouldn’t refute it. Despite pressure applied, he in fact managed to convert his gaoler’s daughter to Christianity.
One of the things that landed Valentine in gaol was his practice of performing weddings for soldiers, who were forbidden to marry. Although in these times the couplings were more about sacrifice, and in a very modern sense, equality, Valentine provided some lasting symbols for the contemporary notion of Valentine’s Day. He would cut hearts out of parchment to give to soldiers to remind them of their vows and of God’s love. He wore an amethyst ring with an image of cupid, a recognised symbol of love, embedded in it. Soldiers would see it and ask him to conduct their wedding. Amethysts have become the birthstone of people born in February and are thought to attract love.
Your First Valentine
So before his execution, Valentine wrote a letter to his gaoler’s daughter, and signed it “ Your Valentine.” The original.
Valentine and Romantic Love
It wasn’t until Chaucer made a reference in the 14th century that Valentine became involved in romantic love – or for that time, courtly love. The earliest Valentine’s poem came in the 15th century in which Charles Duc d’Orléans wrote of being smitten by love for his sweet Valentine: “ Je suis desja tanné, ma très doulce Valentinée”.
After that Shakespeare and John Donne wrote of Valentine’s Day in the way that we know it today.
In 1784 this poem was not the cliché it is today but an original entreaty:
The rose is red, the violet’s blue,
The honey’s sweet and so are you.
Thou art my love and I am thine.
I drew thee to my Valentine,
the lot was caste, then drawn,
and fortune said it should be you.
The original notion that your Valentine is someone new or fated is evident in this. Originally your Valentine was someone you had to court ( courtly love). The love you have to run after, just like on a tennis court!
Even then in the eighteenth century lovers exchanged flowers and confectionery. They gave each other keys as a symbol for unlocking their hearts. They made each other cards, and then in the early nineteenth century they gave each other printed cards. When the postage stamp was invented in 1840 the prevalence of Valentine’s Day cards soared and made it possible for Valentine’s messages to be anonymous.
And anonymity made it possible for greetings to be racy and shameless and extremely personal. “Sexting” is a very old habit indeed! Some messaging could be flattering, some harassment … and context was everything.
When Valentine’s Day is Not Commercial
Everyone who values true love knows that there is more to your feelings on Valentine’s Day… the Anglican church holds a Saint Valentine’s service, which includes the option of renewing your marriage vows. In England and Wales, the Catholic church holds a novena “ to support single people seeking a spouse ahead of St Valentine’s Day.”
Are rarely anonymous. The 14th February is now a date for acknowledging love, proposing love, celebrating love. All kinds of gifts are given, although traditionally roses, chocolates and jewellery. It is a day you might decide to ask your partner to marry you, or a day you might plan to reaffirm your marriage vows, or hold a commitment ceremony, or indeed your wedding.