Wednesday, July 18th, 2018

The lesser known history of Valentine’s Day

Some of Libby Bischof’s private collection of vintage Valentine’s Day cards from the 19th century, when the mass sending of love messages gained popularity. One card reads: “When thou art near, the rose doth seem less fair, the lily pale is shorn of baff its grace, I only see the glory of thy hair. I only know the beauty of thy face, thy presence gladdens like the vernal year, and it is always May, when thou art near.”
Francis Flisiuk | The Free Press
Some of Libby Bischof’s private collection of vintage Valentine’s Day cards from the 19th century, when the mass sending of love messages gained popularity. One card reads: “When thou art near, the rose doth seem less fair, the lily pale is shorn of baff its grace, I only see the glory of thy hair. I only know the beauty of thy face, thy presence gladdens like the vernal year, and it is always May, when thou art near.”

Posted on February 10, 2015 in News
By Francis Flisiuk

Over priced roses and heart shaped pieces of plastic have adorned department store shelves, signifying that the ancient fertility festival of Lupercalia is almost upon us. But of course, most modern Americans know it as Valentine’s Day.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 62% of American adults celebrated the holiday of love and romance last year, but how many are aware of its pagan and later Christian origins?

After stopping to ask this question to about 25 students in the Woodbury Campus Center last week, the air of uncertainty surrounding the holiday’s beginning was tangible. Most students responded with, “I think it has something to do with St. Valentine,” but not much else.

“It was a religious day right?” said Christina Cook, a first year social work graduate student. “Like St. Valentine did some stuff at one time. I’m sorry, I don’t really know.”

“The only thing that comes to my mind is baby cupid shooting arrows,” said freshman international business major Rona Sayed. “I don’t think most students have an idea about the religious foundings of certain holidays.”

Despite the cute and loving nature of the holiday in its current form, back in Roman times, it was a different sort of celebration. Lupercalia, as it was called back then, was celebrated by sacrificing animals and whipping naked women with their hides in a drunken revelry. The holiday didn’t get its name until 400 A.D. Pope Gelasius declared Feb. 14 the day to honor two men, both named Valentine, who were executed by the Romans 100 years prior. The Pope wanted a Christian holiday to honor the church but didn’t want to upset the then huge populace of pagans. So Pope Gelasius simply changed the name of Lupercalia to Valentine’s Day in homage to the two bishops who were imprisoned and tortured in Rome before they died as martyrs. However, according to the Roman Martyrology, there’s only one person listed as Saint Valentine.

By the medieval era of the late 1300s the holiday was first associated with love and romance, spurred on by the works of Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare. But according to Libby Bischof, a history professor at USM, the Valentine’s Day rituals and symbols that we’re used to didn’t really gain popularity until the 17th and 18th century. After Europe embraced the idea of sending each other Valentines, the tradition carried over to America.

“As you might imagine, the British colonists brought over the tradition of card exchange with them to the New World,” said Bischof.

Bischof collects vintage Valentine’s Day cards from the late 19th century for personal pleasure and for her history students to examine. Bischof said that it is evident from her historic collection where we get our classic symbols of cherubs, hearts, flowers and doves. The cards were highly ornate, with soft tones of pinks, reds and blues and layered with lace and images of Victorian era scenes.

“Much like the women of the time were overdressed with ruffles and lace, these Valentine’s Day cards were way overdone,” said Bischof. “But I love card exchange.”

Bischof said that people living in the Victorian era, which lasted from 1837-1901, were more sentimental than the current generation and spent their Valentine’s Day sending gifts and detailed artistic stationaries to not just their romantic desires, but also to their friends and family.

“Today the honor of ‘my Valentine’ is usually reserved for somebody’s boyfriend or girlfriend,” said Bischof. “Friendships were more intimate back then.”

From the pop up art work, to the romantic verses and handwritten notes to even the envelopes they were sent in, these messages of love followed a structured format, but without lacking in creativity and meaning.

“In the 1700s there were actual manuals and coded social behaviors on what you should put into a Valentine’s Day card,” said Bischof.

Even the direction and angle of the stamp carried some sort of sentiment and meaning. For example a crooked stamp might mean that your intentions are to transcend being friends and start courting.

The art of the handwritten note and the act of making things from scratch in general is something that Bischof believes has for the most part, taken a back seat in modern society.

“Times have changed,” said Bischof. “There’s no handmade touch anymore, when taking the time and sentiment is important. It would be a nice thing if we could do more of it, but it’s gone by the wayside a little, partially from laziness and partially the demands of our time.”

According to Bischof, Valentine’s Day rituals have altered to a point where the holiday is more commercialized and people feel pressured to spend a lot of their money fueling a billion dollar industry. And while according to U.S. Postal Service, 150 million Valentine’s Day cards were sent through the mail last year, most were mass produced.

“Nowadays I’m sure it’s more common to make a Facebook post and tag your significant other in it,” said Bischof. “There was more genuine caring behind the Victorian practices, that may have just been filtered out now.”

Emily Maynard, a community planning and development graduate, used to keep fostering the older card exchange tradition as an R.A. on campus by leaving Valentine’s Day cards under residents’ doors. She believes that handmaking a card and sending it through the mail shows a lot of initiative, but is simply a hobby for some people.

“But that card in the mail has definitely been almost phased out by modern society,” said Maynard. “My parent will send me a card. But I probably won’t send one back.”

“I might send out one card,” said Brandon Owens, a recreation and sports management graduate. “If I had time, I’d try to make something. Creativity does mean more.”

Owens and his friend Cody Rohde, fellow sports management major, said they plan on watching Netflix on Valentine’s Day and think that people view the holiday as just another “Hallmark holiday but don’t really understand it.”

Today the holiday has strayed far from its dark Roman origins and Victorian era days of highly cordial but sincere rituals, into a big, money churning business. According to CNN, two years ago Americans spent more than four billion dollars on just candy and roses and $18.6 billion overall, by the time the day of love appeared on the calendar.

However according to the same survey, 85% of men and women in America say sex is an important part of their Valentine’s Day celebrations, so modern observers of the holiday hanker back to some of their ancient roots.

 

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