In honor of this upcoming annual celebration I have updated my musings on the derivation of this “holiday.” Hope you enjoy it:
During my childhood years there was a lovely tradition in my household – every Valentine’s Day my Dad would bring my Mom one dozen, long-stemmed American Beauty red roses which would grace the top of the television console in the living room. You should be aware that unlike today’s sleek flat screens, our Dumont had a 15″ screen with only a handful of television stations – however its dial also included a few radio stations as well:
I still have the lovely Grecian style porcelain vase that housed the aromatic red plumes, and this had such a profound effect on my psyche that to this day – I am moved by gifts of flowers (not hinting, but…):
How did this tradition begin? Who was St Valentine? How long has this been going on?
There were many saints named Valentine – in days of yore it was quite a common name . Upon investigation it appears that the most probable subject of this piece was a Roman Christian priest during the First Century, A.D. who ran afoul of Emperor Claudius for refusing to denounce the Catholic faith, and was summarily stoned, clubbed and finally beheaded and martyred (hard to shake off his mortal coil!) on February 14, 269.
As Rizzo said to Kenicke: “Well, it ain’t moonlight and roses…” – Valentine nevertheless became the Patron Saint of affianced couples, bee keepers, epilepsy, fainting, happy marriages, love, greetings, lovers, travellers and young people. While this list brings up some questions on the connection amongst this seeming disparate group, we do know that St Valentine is often represented in pictures with birds and roses.
There are also several theories on which author began to associate St Valentine’s Day with romance and both are credible. The first, seen as the first instance of a “Valentine Card” or message is attributed to Charles, the Duke of Orleans, who wrote a rondeau (a fixed form of verse based on two rhyme sounds) to his wife while imprisoned in the Tower of London. Here is a bit of it translated:
I am already sick of love
My very gentle Valentine
Since for me you were born too soon
And I for you was born too late
God forgives him who has estranged/Me from you the whole year.
The second author is one of my favorite writers – Geoffrey Chaucer. One of my great joys (yes, as stated before I am an unabashed Nerd) was learning to read Chaucer’s stories in the original Middle English – thus getting to experience the author in all his true bawdiness (things DO get lost in translation)! His Valentine’s mention is, however, not risqué. This is from “The Parliament of Fowls:”
For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day
When every bird comes there his choice to make
Of every species, that men might imagine
That earth and sea, and tree, and every lake
Was so full that there was no more space
For me to stand, so full was all of the place.
In Edmund Spencer’s epic “The Faerie Queen” (1590) we actually get to read one of the first mentions of a common theme in Valentine wishes:
She bath’d with roses red, and violets blew
And all the sweetest flowers, that the forest grew.
The well-known and somewhat clichéd Valentine’s Day poem that we all recited as children can be found in the collection of English nursery rhymes by Gammer Gurton Garland (1784):
The rose is red, the violet’s blue
The honey’s sweet,and so are you
Thou art my love and I am thine
I drew thee to my Valentine
The lot was cast and Then I drew
And Fortune said it shou’d be you.
These saccharine verses have been accompanied by equally sweet images of lovers, cupids, flowers and the like – and across the years have often reflected the state of the culture. First we have the vintage notions of Courtly Love:
Some were surprisingly erotic, given the sensibilities of the times:
Some were downright weird:
Here are two war-time Valentines:
From my childhood:
And some that defy classification other than just plain creepy:
Lastly there were a surprising number of aggressive/suggestive/abusive cards:
Given today’s activism on recognizing physical and emotional bullying and abuse I doubt some of these cards would be deemed acceptable today – and that is a good thing.
Here’s to a genuine, loving and heartfelt Valentine’s Day!