Talk about the gift of reinvention. Though Valentine’s Day can trace its roots to both a Roman fertility festival called Lupercalia and the execution of not one but two third century priests named Valentine, it emerged, hundreds of years later, as a celebration of romantic love.
It wasn’t an easy road. The Romans loved their pagan festivals and held dozens each year to honor gods representing everything from good health to rich harvests, moral excellence, and even secrecy.
During the third century, Roman emperor Claudius II executed a priest named Valentine on Feb. 14 for performing marriages, which had been declared illegal (as was Christianity at the time). Since he was technically killed for defending his faith, Valentine was martyred and became known as St. Valentine. However, many believe there were actually two Valentines, one from Rome and one from Terni, both of whom were executed for love-related crimes, so the truth is, not surprisingly, muddled.
Two hundred years later, after Rome had become the center of Christianity, the empire’s pagans were still celebrating Lupercalia, and the church, specifically Pope Gelasius I, had had enough. But instead of executing the pesky pagans, Gelasius decided to use honey instead of vinegar to move them a bit closer to Christianity. The festival would still be allowed, but it would be known as St. Valentine’s Day. The rebranding would replace lusty, drunken revelry with odes to St. Valentine and pure love.
Though no one really knows who sent the first Valentine’s Day card, legend has it that it may have been St. Valentine himself, who purportedly left a note in his cell signed, “From Your Valentine.” Speculation abounds as to whom the letter was addressed; in the most popular story, it was a farewell to Julia, the daughter of St. Valentine’s jailer. In some versions he restored her sight and she befriended him; in others, he loved her from afar. Either way, that note is probably the world’s first written valentine. Not much is known about Valentine’s Day until the Middle Ages when Geoffrey Chaucer, in his late 14th century poem “Parliament of Foules,” wrote, “For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.” The poem, which was written to commemorate the first anniversary of King Richard II’s engagement to Anne of Bohemia, is largely considered the earliest written instance associating Valentine’s Day with romantic love. Chaucer’s mention of birds references the fact that in France and England Feb. 14 is considered the beginning of mating season for birds.
Charles, Duke of Orleans, is credited with sending what is considered the first official valentine, a poem he penned in 1415 to his wife, Bonne of Armagnac, during his imprisonment in the Tower of London. Written in French, the poem translates to “I am already sick of love, My very gentle Valentine” in English. The oldest known English-language valentine was sent by Margery Brews in 1477 to John Paston, the man she desperately wanted to marry, despite the fact that he was disappointed with the size of her dowry. Apparently it worked because the couple married later that year.
Though sending Valentine’s Day messages was popular throughout the Middle Ages, printed valentines didn’t make their appearance until the late 18th century. The oldest surviving card was sent in 1797 from Catherine Mossday to a Mr. Brown. Beyond being the earliest printed valentine, the card also proves that “ghosting,” a modern term used to describe one member of a romantic duo ending the relationship by simply not responding to any form of communication, is not a modern phenomenon:
As I have repeatedly requested you to come I think you must have some reason for not complying with my request, but as I have something particular to say to you I could wish you make it all agreeable to come on Sunday next without fail and in doing you will oblige your well wisher.
The Victorians, who were remarkably adept at double meanings and veiled insults, were also responsible for “vinegar valentines,” which were mean-spirited postcards meant to insult, criticize, and air grievances. Not surprisingly, they were sent anonymously. Thankfully, the trend was short-lived.
It was Esther Howland, the daughter of a stationery store owner, who is credited with producing the first mass-produced valentines in 1850 when she founded the New England Valentine Company. Using an assembly line composed entirely of women, Howland created beautiful cards that included details such as painted silk, elaborate folds, and specialty papers. By 1880, the New England Valentine Company was earning more than $100,000 in profit (equivalent to $2.5 million in today’s dollars) each year.
By 1913, Hallmark — then called Hall Bros. — began selling Valentine’s Day cards; today, the Greeting Card Association estimates approximately 145 million valentines are sent every year.
These days, though, making a card for your loved one is almost as easy as buying one; even better, you can say exactly what you want, in your own words. Another option? Spend a couple of hours making loads of cards and deliver them to a local nursing home or rehab facility.
Though Valentine’s Day has become associated with romantic love, kids can have fun making cards that declare their love for family members, friends, teachers, and God.
Valentine’s Day Crafts
By Lauren Dasher
Handprint Heart Notes
Materials: construction paper, scissors, glue, pen. You can also do this same activity with paint!
1.Take any color construction paper and fold it in half.
2. Have your children place one hand tilted on the paper so that their thumb touches the folded edge.
3. Trace their hand.
4. Use scissors to cut out the traced hand and unfold it to form a heart with the touching thumbs.
5. You can have your children write a heartfelt message on their handprint or glue it to another piece of paper with the message above it.
6. If you have access to a laminator, then laminate it so you can keep a handprint of your child for years to come!
Valentine’s Day “Pop-up” Card
Materials: construction paper, glue, markers
1. Fold a piece of construction paper in half.
2. Cut small slits in the edge of the paper that is folded.
3. Unfold the paper to form a card and “pop out” the cut pieces to make them 3D.
4. Using any extra construction paper, add hearts, confetti, or a kind note to the card to decorate.
“I Love You to Pieces” Card
Materials: Construction paper, glue, markers
1. Cut the shape of a heart using white construction paper.
2. Glue the heart to a larger piece of construction paper.
3. Using a variety of colors (or a single color) cut or tear small pieces of paper to create confetti. Brightly colored tissue paper is also a fun alternative to use for confetti.
4. Glue the confetti inside the heart.
5. Write “I love you to pieces!”
“Love Grows” Thumbprint Flowers
Materials: paint, construction paper, markers
1. On a piece of construction paper, draw a picture of an empty vase with stems coming out of the vase.
2. Dip your child’s thumb in paint and press it twice on the end of a stem to create a “heart thumbprint.”
3. Continue the thumbprints over each stem in different paint colors to give the illusion of a vase full of heart shaped flowers.
*You can also do this project with different colored construction paper hearts instead of paint. Simply cut small hearts in different colors and glue them on each end of the stems.