valentine's dayToday, my news feed on facebook and my dashboard on tumblr seem to be mainly composed of posts relating to four categories: 1) Expressions of affection for a boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse/other family member/best friend, etc. 2) Expressions of sadness  that the individual writing the post in question is “celebrating Valentine’s Day alone” 3) A statement that either praises the customs associated with Valentine’s Day or condemns the holiday as overrated/corny/stupid/commercialized, and then often goes on to criticize anyone who doesn’t agree, and  4) Philosophical musings about the definition of “Love”.

Interestingly enough, I have yet to see anyone on the internet say anything about Valentine. That word is generally used to refer to the type of card that people give or receive on Valentine’s Day, or to a person to whom one would give such a card. But the word Valentine is actually a name, and the holiday Valentine’s Day is named for a person named Valentine. So I decided that this would be a nice time to write a blog post about Valentine, but I had a little problem. You see, I know absolutely nothing about Valentine. (Except that he is presumably a saint in the Roman Catholic Church, because that is the likeliest explanation for why he has a day named after him, and why it is occasionally called “Saint Valentine’s Day”) So I have enlisted the help of Google and Merriam Webster’s Biographical Dictionary in order to bring you some information about Valentine and the history of Valentine’s Day.

Saint ValentineThere are in fact multiple significant historical figures named Valentine, although the internet doesn’t seem to be quite sure how many. Three seems to be the most common suggestion, but I am finding references to what seems to be a lot more than three distinct people. One person named Valentinus was pope for forty days in the year 827, according to the biographical dictionary, which doesn’t give any other information about him. Another Valentinus was a second century Gnostic heretic. Then there were three Roman emperors by the name of Valentinian. The famous two Saint Valentines (who may or may not actually be the same person) were/was a Roman priest who was martyred by Claudius II in 269 and a bishop of Interamna, which is now called Terni. Thanks to Google maps, I now am capable of informing you that Terni is a province in central Italy, 106 kilometers away from Rome, and that if you were to drive from Rome to Terni, that route would have tolls. (Just a heads-up. You’re welcome.)

Saint Valentine’s association with romance seems to be mainly a thing of legend. One story that I saw online says that Valentine was in prison and fell in love with the jailor’s daughter, and that he wrote her a letter signed “From your Valentine”, thus beginning the customs associated with Valentine’s Day. Given the fact that we don’t even know how many different people this guy was, I find this story to be somewhat unreliable. But it is true that the list of things of which he is the patron saint includes “love” and “happy marriages”. I don’t know enough about the way the Roman Catholic canonization process works to know whether or not that might be a result of traditions that later became associated with his holiday.

Saint ValentineEvidently, the actual origin of the holiday we know as Valentine’s Day was a Roman holiday known as Lupercalia. Lupercalia was celebrated on February 15, and it was a pagan festival of fertility, associated with the god of agriculture and with the legendary founders of Rome. When Rome became Christian, Lupercalia was outlawed because it was pagan, but when February 14 became a holiday in the late fifth century, it would seem that some of the pagan associations with that particular time of the year gradually became associated with the new holiday. Our idea of Valentine’s Day as a romantic holiday originates in medieval France and England. The oldest known Valentine’s Day card was made in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans. It was to his wife, whose name was Bonne d’Armagnac, a piece of information that required an additional google search on my part. Charles wrote this valentine from the Tower of London, where he was in prison for being French and getting captured by the English in the Battle of Agincourt.

Esther A. Howland

Esther A. Howland

Valentine’s Day was commercialized by a woman named Esther A. Howland, who began making mass-produced valentines in the 1840s. One final google search reveals that Esther Howland lived from 1828 to 1904, although she retired in 1881, and that one of her contributions to the traditions of Valentine’s Day was putting red paper behind the white lacy part of a valentine.

The other really important Valentine’s Day tradition originated when someone once wrote a “recipe” for a cooking magazine that my mother used to get, which pointed out that if you combine un-jelled red jello with un-set pudding (both made from boxed mixes) and then put that combination in a pan and stick it in the refrigerator, then cut it with a heart-shaped cookie cutter, you get red jello-pudding hearts.

What valentines looked like in the days of Esther A. Howland

What valentines looked like in the days of Esther A. Howland

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