As Valentine’s Day looms round the corner, I began to wonder how the day’s association with romantic love came about. A number of versions exist as to the celebration’s origin, ranging from the Roman church’s remembrance of St Valentine’s imprisonment, persecution, and martyrdom for marrying soldiers to their sweethearts to claims that the Christian church hijacked the pagan festival of Lupercalia, a fertility rite that took place in mid-February. There is no consensus as to who St Valentine was, since the Catholic church recognises at least three contenders. However, according to legend, one of them wrote a note to the daughter of his Roman gaoler, signed ‘From your Valentine’, a simple wording that is still used today. This, it seems, may well be the earliest instance of a connection between romantic love and Valentine’s.
However, a more overt romanticisation of Valentine’s Day may be traced back to Geoffrey Chaucer, Britain’s father of English literature, whose ‘Parlement of Foules’ (c. 1380) celebrates Richard II and Anne of Bohemia’s first year of betrothal:
For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.
An article on www.camlann.org notes that ‘the connection of Valentine’s Day with the pairing of lovers was unknown before [Otto de] Granson [who wrote at least seven Valentine’s poems] and Chaucer; they virtually originated the occasion as we know it. Granson seems to be the first to write love poems for Valentine’s Day, before 1374, while Chaucer pioneered the crucial involvement of birds in the observance.’
Some years later, in 1415, Charles, Duke of Orleans, wrote a Valentine’s farewell to his wife from his prison cell in the Tower of London:
I am already sick of love,
My very gentle Valentine,
Since for me you were born too soon,
And I for you was born too late.
God forgives him who has estranged
Me from you for the whole year.
The tradition of writing sentimental verse to one’s Valentine has continued through the ages. ‘In 1797, a British publisher issued The Young Man’s Valentine Writer, which contained scores of suggested sentimental verses for the young lover unable to compose his own. Printers had already begun producing a limited number of cards with verses and sketches, called “mechanical valentines,” and a reduction in postal rates in the next century ushered in the less personal but easier practice of mailing Valentines.’ (http://en.wikipedia.org)
Quite possibly the bestowal of gifts to one’s sweetheart at Valentine’s began before the 17th century. Samuel Pepys records in his diary
the custom of drawing lots with the name of the person upon whom one would bestow a gift, and a motto, such as: “Most Courteous & Most Faire”. One superstition held that the first unmarried person of the other sex that one met on this morning in walking abroad, was a destined spouse.
By the 18th century young folks were setting their names down on ‘billets’ to be drawn by each sex to choose their Valentine. The men then treated their chosen one to ‘balls and treats’, and this little sport often ends in love.
The convention of gift giving at Valentine’s continues to this day, as does the exchange of Valentine’s Day cards. Gifts and cards range from simple and thoughtfully made items to those which exclaim in near bombastic fashion the sentiments of the giver. In the 21st century, couples too busy during the week might seek out a Valentine’s weekend escape in order to spend some quality time together. This celebration of their love may perhaps be best summed up in a nursery rhyme from Joseph Ritson’s Gammer Gurton’s Garland (1784):
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 cast and then I drew,
And Fortune said it shou’d be you.
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