By: Carolyn L. Barkley
When I was in elementary school, February was fun. First, the month was short. Then to make it seem even shorter, Massachusetts schools had an entire week off ( known, obviously, as “February vacation”) and we lost it only if we had already experienced an excessive number of snow days). Best of all, there were three separate and distinct holidays to celebrate – Lincoln’s Birthday (I remember our second-grade beige “math paper” cut in the shape of Lincoln’s profile), Valentine’s Day, and finally, Washington’s Birthday with its requisite stories about honesty and cherry trees. We miss so much today when all of our holidays seem to run almost concurrently, with their emphasis on retail sales rather than history or moral lessons–or even fun–as well as because of our manufactured-need for three-day weekends. What school student today even knows the actual date of Lincoln’s birthday? (I’m going to believe that they might know which presidents are included in President’s Day—despite what I have seen on Jay Leno!)
The origins of St. Valentine’s Day, 14 February, are perhaps the least well known of the three separate holidays of my youth. Just who was St. Valentine? In fact, there were at least two Valentines. One, known as Valentine of Rome, was beheaded ca. 269 during the reign of Emperor Claudius II (213-270 CE), and the other, known as Valentine of Terni, was martyred during the reign of Emperor Aurelian (270-275 CE). Both were buried in Rome on the Via Flaminia. Much later, in the fifth or sixth century, the Passio Marii et Marthae included stories about Valentine’s martyrdom (probably the earlier of the two Valentines), including the miracles he was said to have performed prior to his death. The established church at the time, feeling threatened by lingering attachments to earlier pagan rituals, was busily usurping pagan festival days and designating them as church observances. Thus the old Roman Lupercalia became the feast day of St. Valentine. These stories about St. Valentine were repeated for several centuries, became accepted parts of the liturgy of both the Catholic and the Lutheran churches, and resulted in the emergence of a single figure. It was Chaucer, however, who in the fourteen century first introduced the concept of romantic love with regard to St. Valentine’s Day in a poem written to honor the wedding anniversary of King Richard II of England and Anne of Bohemia.
Still later, hand-made Valentines began to be exchanged. The practice became popular enough that by 1797, The Young Man’s Valentine Writer was published to provide ready-made sentimental verses to those unable to commit original thoughts or feelings to paper. By Victorian times, the practice of sending Valentine greetings had become so popular that the sentiments began to be mass produced.1 Today, millions of Valentine’s Day cards are purchased and sent to family, friends and loved ones.
Do you remember the anticipation of selecting which card to send to which classmate?2 or the thrill of sending just the right one to a favorite girl- or boyfriend? Did you count how many you received and compare the number with your friends? How about those multi-colored candy hearts with the various sayings printed on them?
If your ancestors were among the Puritans, I can’t imagine that they would have allowed any observance of such a holiday as Valentine’s Day. Even the Catholic Church, by 1969, removed the feast day of St. Valentine from the official calendar, stating that nothing was really known about him, thus relegating any religious observance to local or national custom. Other countries celebrate similar holidays on days other than 14 February, celebrate other saints, or may have been influenced by the more commercial aspect of American observances of the holiday. For example, in Wales, St. Dwynwen’s Day is celebrated on 25 January (Dwynwen being the patron saint of Welsh lovers) and in Romania, “Dragobete” is celebrated on 24 February. Japan didn’t celebrate the holiday until 1936, and Valentine’s Day has not fared well in Islamic countries where celebrations and the sale of holiday-related merchandise are often banned due to their close Christian connection. In Finland, the holiday celebrates friendship more than romantic love.
Whatever our memories or traditions, St. Valentine’s Day is a day to reach out to our loved ones and friends and to remember those who have gone before. As genealogists, it may even send us to the attic, or to those boxes in the closet, to see what Valentines of the past might have been saved and how we might preserve them to be enjoyed by future generations. By the same token, if you are interested in further information about saints, one comprehensive source is Alan J. Koman’s A Who’s Who of Your Ancestral Saints (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2010).
1 Image to the left is from Wikimedia Commons
(http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Saint_Valentine%27s_Day_1861.jpg : accessed 10 February 2013), from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs Division, digital ID cph.3a61286 (http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a51286).
2 Image to the right is from Pintarest, “Vintage Valentine: Hot Dog!” by pageofbats on Flickr.