Valentines Day: Just another Hallmark Holiday?

It’s not that I don’t like chocolate, cards, and flowers. I love these symbols of affection and yes, I will take them any day of the week you care to send them to me. But I’m somewhat suspicious of any commercialized holiday where we are encouraged to recognize a particular group on a particular day, i.e. Mother’s Day or Secretaries—er—Administrative Assistant’s Day. My feeling is that there are ample opportunities to honor those who are special to us in meaningful ways on random, unexpected days when we are motivated internally rather than by a Hallmark holiday.

So how did the Valentine’s Day tradition grow to such behemoth proportions that it is second only to Christmas in the amount of cards and gifts that are exchanged for a holiday?

The Original Valentine: Saint or Sinner?

St Valentine (Maxfield Parrish)

As with many good love stories, this one has mystery, is rooted in truth, and is largely embellished. Although there were several early Christian martyrs named Valentine, the namesake honored on February 14th appears to be St. Valentine of Rome, a priest who was jailed and martyred in the mid-2nd century after refusing to succumb to the Roman (non-Christian) rule of Claudius II. Valentine performed secret wedding ceremonies for soldiers, who were forbidden to marry for fear this would usurp their strength. Legend has it that when the church discovered his disobedience, the priest was imprisoned, fell in love with the warden’s daughter, and sent her a romantic letter on the night before his execution signed, “From your Valentine”.

Despite little proof that any of this actually happened, by the middle ages, the martyred St. Valentine had become the calendar boy for romance and love in France and England. In 1969, the church removed him from the list of Saints, citing lack of real evidence that he had done anything to earn Sainthood.

A Little Pagan With Your Chocolate?

Lupercalia Pagan Festival predates Valentines Day

Never ones to support those lusty pagans, there are theories that support the idea that in 469 A.D., the Church decided to position St. Valentine’s feast day in mid-February, and make him Patron Saint of Lovers and Engaged Couples. This was an attempt to Christianize the pagan ritual of “Lupercalia”, a fertility festival involving animal sacrifices and bloody rituals, (don’t ask) culminating in a giant ball where the city’s bachelors would pick eligible ladies names out of an urn and become paired for the year. This appears to be the beginning of the modern day Valentine romantic tradition.

The Mother Of All Valentines

Chaucer, Shakespeare, Donne…all the early romantic writers memorialized Valentine’s Day, leading up to the Victorian era (1837-1901) when printed Valentines cards offered less literate folks a way to express their affection, and even allowed anonymous card-giving. The first mass-produced cards were made of embossed paper lace in the 1850’s by Esther Howland, the daughter of a Massachusetts stationer who is known as “The Mother of the Valentine”, and are memorialized in many museum collections. Other entrepreneurs knew a good thing when they saw one, and the card industry was born. Later cards in the early 20th century included various pop-out, unfolding features with movable, slide-able parts, and are quite charming.

Esther Howland

1940’s mechanical card

Seratonin for the Sweet?

Perhaps it’s the clinician in me that wonders if all this romance in the air is a result of the release of phenylethylamine , a naturally occurring amino acid which CHOCOLATE contains, along with tryptophan, a building block of serotonin, one of the brain chemicals involved in.. yes, you guessed it, sexual arousal?

In the 1860’s, William Cadbury, a British confectioner, and in the 1940’s, the American Whitman, recognized their opportunity to jump on the Valentine’s Day sweetheart train, and began to market heart shaped boxes of chocolates. This type of mass marketing I don’t take issue with, surprisingly enough! (Admit it. You love obsessing on the little diagrams on the bottom of the lid as much as I do.)

My verdict on Valentines Day?

A holiday that has its roots in antiquity, touches on paganism, spans the earliest centuries, encompassing multicultural millennium of love, romance and admiration is actually rather appealing to this girl.

And in case anyone is wondering? I’m partial to chocolate covered marzipan, anything with lavender flavoring, and never met a flower I didn’t like.

Saltimbanque Chocolates in Seattle.. must..have..

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