From goat guts to greeting cards, a history of St Valentine's Day

Co-opted by Christian leaders from the pagans, the true spirit of the day is recognising a female entrepreneur

From goat guts to greeting cards, a history of St Valentine's Day


February 14th, thanks in no small part to endless waves of cultural homogeneity, is the celebrated day of lovers. St Valentine’s Day, with all of the associated trimmings and expectations, pays tribute to both Christian and Roman traditions, but just who was the man who gave this day his name?

Not the patron saint of love, anyway. As the Catholic Church is apt to point out, anyone in their flock offering prayers to Saint Valentine could well find them falling on disinterested ears, with Saint Raphael the man to have a quiet word with when it comes to matters of happy encounters.

Why, Claudius?

When it comes to Valentine, the Catholic Church acknowledges that there are at least three different saints with that name in their holy roster, all of whom underwent some form of martyrdom on their way off this mortal coil. The leading legend lays it down that Valentine was a priest who served in 3rd century Rome, and who stood up to an executive order made by Emperor Claudius II. With the Roman leader having ruled out marriage for young men after decided that those encumbered with wives and children made for worse soldiers, Valentine wed young couples in secret, losing his life at Claudius’s order.

As such, this Valentine is better known for displaying the sense of agape (Christian love) rather than Eros (passionate love), having become a martyr for refusing to renounce his love for his religion.

Another story claims that Valentine was killed for helping persecuted Christians escape from the misery of Roman jails, where they would be tortured and beaten – and even potentially, though likely apocryphally, thrown to the lions for sport. This Valentine also has a stake in ownership of sending romantic correspondence, having passed the very first valentine to his jailor’s daughter, miraculously curing her blindness in the process. “From your Valentine,” he allegedly wrote, but veracity or not, the story spread far and wide across western Europe, making the saint one of the most popular on the continent by the Middle Ages.

Pilfering the pagans

Records about when this particular Valentine was put to death are inconclusive, but another legend claims he died around this time in 270AD/CE, with the suggestions that February 14th is the anniversary of his death. The more likely reason is likely due to the Christian faith’s drive to appropriate pagan festivals and rebrand them as Christian. Case in point: Lupercalia, a fertility festival dedicated to Roman forebears Romulus and Remus, as well as Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture.

Celebrated on the ides of February, the ritual involved pagan priests making their way to the cave where the child brothers were cared for by a wolf, where they would slaughter a goat and a dog. The goat would then have its hide cut up into fleshy ribbons, dipped into the sacrificial blood, which the priests would then use to gingerly smack the child-bearing women of the city, as well as the crops in the fields, hoping the fertility of one would be matched in the other. Other matches also saw women dropping their names into a vessel from which the eligible bachelors of Rome would draw a mate for the year to follow, often ending with the pair tying the knot.

Lupercalia was important enough to outlast the early purges of pagan practices during the early days of Christianity’s spread, though Gelasius, head the Church from 492 to 498 as the 49th Pope, decreed February 14th become St Valentine’s Day. But it would take another millennium for the feast day to become definitively associated with lovers.

Chaucer weighs in

In Britain and France in the 14th century, it was widely believed that the 14th day of the second month was the moment when birds’ mating season started, the occasion taking on romantic sensibilities. According to historian Henry Ansgar Kelly, author of Chaucer and the Cult of Saint Valentine, it was the father of English literature who helped entrench February 14th as a day for love when he wrote a poem dedicated to the engagement between Richard II and Anne of Bohemia.

The 1381 piece, named The Parliament of Fowls, ties together the concepts of a royal marriage, the arrival of mating season for birds, and St Valentine with the lines: For this was on St Valentine’s Day / When every fowl cometh there to choose his mate.

By the 15th century, the act of sending and receiving Valentine’s Day messages and declarations of love was already established among the nobility and literate. Over the centuries, the annual custom made its way from Europe by way of cultural – not to mention literal – colonisation of North and South America, as well as Australia and New Zealand. By the middle of the 18th century, it was accepted that members of all social classes would mark the occasion with small tokens of affection for their loved ones.

A vendor sells balloons on Valentine's Day, Tuesday, Feb.14, 2017, in Manila, Philippines. Valentine's Day, associated with love and romance, is expressed with flowers, chocolates, balloons and dinner dates [AP Photo/Bullit Marquez]

The mother of the modern Valentine

While cynics might well shrug off the day as a Hallmark holiday invented by chocolatiers and greetings card makers, the person who actually deserves much of the credit for having the entrepreneurial nous is Esther Howland, the mother of the contemporary Valentine.

Growing up the daughter of a stationery merchant in Worcester, Massachusetts in the 19th century, Howland took up a role as his apprentice. Rifling through all the post, her attention was caught by a note card arriving from England, ornately decorated with fussy Victoriana. Struck by the design, Howland hatched a plan to emulate the cards using the materials to hand, generating sales of more than $100,000 in annual turnover.

Two examples of Howland's cards, which sell as collectors items for hundreds of dollars today [Mount Holyoke College]

She started to work with scraps left over from her father’s story, combining paper doilies with ribbons to created highly detailed and adorned Valentine’s Day cards. They were sold to eager customers in the store, but when her brother took some on a sales trip, he returned with a $5,000 order, meaning that Howland had to hire three of her friends to help develop the cards on an assembly line. They would cut lace from paper, trim hearts, and stencil flowers on the cards, with Howland’s empire growing to produce thousands of cards to meet demands.

After later incorporating her business, she later sold it to George C Whitney, the greeting card magnate who championed holidays and festivals all year round, who pioneered mass production techniques.

But even if Howland’s gilded greetings may have fallen out of fashion in the modern world, her sentiments have not. In addition to kick-starting the card craze that sees a billion messages sent in the post every year, she also wrote a style guide to sentimental love language, the kind we still see splashed inside of cards to this very day.

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