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The Advent of Valentines

“Tomorrow is St Valentine’s Day, when every bird chooses her mate. I will plague you no longer now,
providing you will let me see you from your window tomorrow when the sun first peeps over the eastern hill, and give me right to be your Valentine for the year.”
Sir Walter Scott
The Fair Maid of Perth, 1828

Valentine’s day is one of the earliest Christian holidays. Springing from the ancient Roman fertility

festival of the Luprical, in 496 A.D., Pope Gelasius attempted to ban the pagan ritual by replacing it

with a Saints Day celebration. He named February 14 in honor of St. Valentine, the patron saint of

lovers. Though the Catholic Church recognizes at least three different saints named Valentine or

Valentinus, (all of whom were martyred on February 14) tradition holds that this Valentine was a

priest imprisoned for marrying young lovers againse the Ceasar’s command. Sometime around 270 A.D.

Emperor Claudius II had decided that single men made better soldiers than married ones. He therefore

decreed that young men not be allowed to marry. When Valentine was found defying this order, he was

impriosoned and later beheaded. The legend continues that while in prison, Valentine fell in love with

his jailor’s blind daughter. Shortly before his execution, he sent her a farewell letter which was

signed “from your Valentine.” Words that are used even to this day.

Later, Medieval Europeans believed that birds began to mate on February 14. Doves and pigeons mate for

life and were therefore used as a symbol of fidelity. Also during the Middle Ages, people began to

send love letters on Valentine’s Day. The first “official” valentine was sent by the Charles, Duke of

Orleans in 1415. Imprisoned in the Tower of London following the battle of Agincourt, he passed the

time by writing love poems to his wife.

target=”new”>This letter is now part of the collection of the British Library in London.

A Redoute Rose
It wasn’t until the 1600’s that Valentine’s day as a holiday really took off. Sending flowers as a

Valentine’s gift began in the early 1700’s when King Charles II of Sweden brought the Persian poetical

art called the


language of flowers to Europe. Throughout the 18th century, floral dictionaries were published,

allowing friends and lovers to send secret messages with a single bloom or bouquet. Of course, the

more popular a flower is, the more meaning is attached to it. Roses also came into their own during

the Georgian period. New imports from China promoted breeding and cross breeding producing what is now

one of England’s favorite garden flower. A famous floral artist of the time, Pierre-Joseph Redoute,

painted hundreds of flowers during his time as court painter to Marie Antoinette and the Empress


“The arrival of this pianoforte is decisive with me.
I wanted to know a little more, and this tells me quite enough…
now I can see it in no other light than as an offering of love.”

Frank Churchill, Emma

We know that the Georgians celebrated Valentine’s Day in style. In Emma, Jane Austen has Jane

Fairfax’s surprise pianoforte arrive on Valentine’s day. Truly a splashy gift made embarrassing by a

secret engagement.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, it was common for friends and lovers in all social classes to

exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes. Some of these styles are easily recreated at

home. Pinprick valentines were made by pricking tiny holes in paper with a pin to resemble the look of

lace. Similar to today’s paper snowflakes, cutout valentines were lacey looking cards made by folding

paper several times and cutting out a delicate design with small, sharp scissors. Poems and acrostic

valentines, verses in which the first letters in the lines spelled out the beloved’s name were also


By the end of the century, printed cards began to replace written letters due to improvements in

printing technology. Cards decorated with black and white pictures painted by factory workers began to

be created in the early 1800s; by the end of the century, valentines were being made entirely by

machine. In the 1840’s, (soon after chocolate candy was invented) machine made, mass market valentines

became available. We must thank the Victorians for forming Valentines Day into much of what it is

today. Recent statistics show that Valentine’s day is the second most popular card sending holiday,

with 1 billion valentines mailed world wide.

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