By Jonathan Baca, Copy Editor
We all know that Feb. 14 is a day for sending out Valentine’s Day cards, whispering sweet nothings, or buying flowers and boxes of candies and giving them to our sweethearts, but it was not always this way.
The Chronicle spoke to Mark Love-Williamson, Instructor of Religion and Humanities, to tell readers a little bit more about the history of Valentine’s Day.
The modern holiday that is loved by couples and dreaded by singles today seems to be a commercial creation, but ancient, pagan celebrations of fertility had been celebrated on Feb. 14 long before sugar hearts and bouquets of roses were given, Love- Williamson said.
In the early Christian church there were many martyrs named St. Valentine, and it seems that they were all lumped together and the church celebrated the feast day for this new creation on Feb. 14, Love- Williamson said.
But St. Valentine was never associated with the romantic love that is celebrated today, at least not initially, he said.
“No one really knows why St. Valentine’s feast day got associated with romantic love,” Love- Williamson said.
One story that was created was that St. Valentine liked to send little love letters to people in his church or people he had converted, where he would use romantic language and sign the letters “from, your Valentine,” Love-Williamson said.
But during this same time and long before it, a different celebration existed that was much more erotic in nature, he said.
In ancient Rome, a pagan fertility festival called Lupercalia was conducted from Feb. 13 to 15.
During this festival, aristocratic families would travel to a nearby cave and make a sacrifice. After this, the men would s t r ip naked and run t h r o u g h the streets of the city carrying whips.
The women would hold out their hands, arms, and even their bare breasts, and the men would run by and whip them, in order to ensure their future fertility, Love- Williamson said.
Lupercalia was celebrated well into the 600’s, after Rome had officially become a Christian city, because, Love-Williamson said, many of the older families still identified with it as part of their past culture.
There may have been an effort by the Church to try and stamp out Lupercalia and replace it with St. Valentine’s feast day, he said.
“The Christian bishops, particularly in Rome, were always saying ‘why are you guys calling yourselves Christians and you’re still having these ancient festivals?’ So having a feast day could have been a way of kind of taking the wind away from the pagan festival,” Love- Williamson said.
Even after this, Valentine’s Day was just like any other feast day, and for a period of hundreds of years, there was no connection to romance associated with it at all, he said.
Then, in 1382, the English poet Chaucer wrote what most scholars consider to be the very first Valentine poem, “The Parliament of Foules,” in which he wrote the lines:
“For this was on St. Valentine’s Day; when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.”
The poem described Valentine’s Day as a special day of love, when all the birds chose their mates, and this was the first known reference to Valentine’s Day as a romantic occasion, Love- Williamson said.
The next major reference in literature came in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, when Hamlet’s lover Ophelia speaks of the day as being a special day for love and for lovers:
Shakespeare was one of the earliest and best known of the romantic poets, who Love- Williamson said helped to create the ideal of romantic love, and many of his sonnets are among the western world’s most popular love poems.
L o v e -Wi l l i ams o n pointed out that Hamlet, however, was not particularly romantic; in the play Hamlet seduces Ophelia and then dumps her.
“Of course Ophelia and Hamlet didn’t get along, and in the end they both die,” Love- Williamson said.
The modern version of Valentine’s Day didn’t really begin until the 1700’s in England, when people began giving out the first printed cards to their loved ones, he said.
But the craze of printed Valentine’s Day cards really began in the early nineteenth century, when they also became very popular in America.
“It took two things; cheap printing and a good, cheap postal service,” Love- Williamson said.
In 1847, Esther Howland received an English Valentine’s card from a friend. Her father was the owner of a book and stationary store, and Howland seemed to love the card, and saw it as a lucrative commercial opportunity, Love-Williamson said.
“She thought, ‘I could make money off of this.’ And it was wildly successful,” Love-Williamson said.
Since then, the greeting card industry has become big business in America, and Valentine’s Day would forever be a celebration of romance and love, created as a commercial holiday and marketed by businesses like flower shops and candy makers, he said.
Although the holiday has caught on in some other parts of the world like Taiwan and Japan, there are some parts of the world that do not recognize it, and some cultures who do not even really appreciate the idea of romance, he said.
“Marriage in so many other cultures has nothing to do with romantic love. It is very much an economic relationship between two families. You’re supposed to make kids, you’re supposed to support the older generation, you’re supposed to carry on the family traditions,” Love- Williamson said.
So next time you buy a box of chocolates, eat a candy heart or receive a bouquet of roses; stop for a moment and remember the long and strange history of Valentine’s Day.