one of many sites that purports to relate the "true" story of St. Valentine.)
I love both Larry Hanson's regular "You Don't Say" illustrated quote and Richard Thompson's Cul de Sac comic. But while both are claiming to be presenting some truth about Valentine's Day that is little known, they are really only repeating what others have said, without question.
We all do that, of course, me included. When we learn something that sounds new to us that also happens to confirm our worldview, we are eager to embrace this new "truth" and even disseminate it to enlighten our friends and acquaintances. And while this sort of repetition of perceived fact without investigation has been going on for ages before the Internet was invented, the easy access to everyone's learned opinion makes the Internet an especially prodigious rumor mill. Which is sometimes fun, but also has the effect of helping myths to spread even more quickly and widely than they did when we got most of our information from the much slower but often just as misinformed print media of various kinds.
As Charlotte said to Wilbur in E.B. White's classic children's story, Charlotte's Web, "People will believe anything they read in print." Had he written the book today, surely he would have happily punned, "People will believe anything they read on the web."
For some reason I can't exactly explain, I have been obsessively curious about the history of holidays of late. I read The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum earlier this winter, which led me to read part of The Invention of Tradition, a collection of scholarly articles edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger. Soon a kind of intellectual domino effect was triggered in my mind, and I found myself hunting down articles in scholarly journals, which I found I could access online after logging in to the Hennepin County Library website and following the research page to the databases link. It was an exhilarating discovery: A person can do real research online instead of relying on Google, which tends to lead you into an endless loop of sources quoting each other and often all leading back eventually to Wikipedia.
Without delving any deeper into explaining the processes of my particular strain of geekiness, and with the advisory that I am still researching this and looking forward to putting together a zine or something on the topic of various holidays (And dubious saints! Maybe trading cards!), I thought I ought to take a moment to share some of what I've learned so far. I'll apologize for not citing more sources at this time (I've dropped in a few links, even so), but it's nearly midnight and I thought I ought to post something about Valentine's Day while the topic is still timely.
Herewith, a few things I've learned about Valentine's Day, which probably don't confirm anybody's worldview, unless you are an avowed skeptic of everything you've been told so far:
Lupercalia, which was celebrated by the Romans on Feb. 15 or thereabouts, was a patriotic holiday, a kind of founders' day, if you will. The etymological root of Lupercalia is lupus, Latin for wolf, referring to the wolf mother who raised Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome. If Valentine's Day were a reinvention of Lupercalia, surely we'd be setting off fireworks and waving Roman flags, not eating chocolates and sending cute love-themed greetings.
Valentine was a popular name amongst Romans. The name shares the same root as the word valor. It meant a brave, strong person. Who wouldn't want a name like that? Of course there were lots of people named Valentine. And of course some of them would have been Christians and some of them priests, and it's entirely possible that some of them would have been martyred for their faith. Persecuting Christians (and Jews, btw) was what many Roman emperors did. (But not all of them, and it appears unlikely that it was a predilection of the emperor Claudius who was in charge during the years in question—there also appears to be no record of any marriage ban during his short reign, from 268 to 270 A.D.). The early martyrologies had, in fact, identified at least two saints named Valentine who were both said to have been martyred on Feb. 14, in 268 or 269 or 270 A.D. But in the mid-20th century, the Catholic church concluded that the evidence about Saint Valentine, whether there were two or just one of him, was dubious enough to remove his feast day from any official observance. In other words, the church isn't sure of any historical facts about the saint.
The first recorded association that scholars have been able to find of Valentine's day with love and romance—and birds, incidentally—was when, in about 1383, Chaucer published his fanciful story poem The Parlement of Fowls, in which he describes an imaginary gathering of birds choosing their mates. Scholars think that he may have been connecting certain phenological observations—birds begin singing again around mid-February (I heard some especially bubbly house finches just yesterday), and the earliest signs of spring begin to manifest about this time—with the saint's day that falls at a convenient point in the natural year.
This association of Saint Valentine's feast day with courtship really caught on amongst the aristocracy in the 15th century, because it fit in so handily with the courtly love traditions already established there, and was a welcome diversion in late winter, before things got really busy in the spring (this was still an agrarian economy, remember).
The peasant classes appreciated a little late winter fun, too, and young unmarried people celebrated the day by pairing up as couples and going carousing in the taverns in groups. It appears that this folk custom was more about partying than about getting serious about romance, however. In a preindustrial agrarian economy, there's a certain amount of downtime that would be coming to an end real soon about this time of year, so why not party while you can?
Valentine's Day was largely unheard of in America until about the 1840s, right around the time people started getting into celebrating Christmas (coincidence?). A great deal of marketing by American businesses had something to do with it. What? You thought the crass commercialization of holidays was a late-20th century invention? It wasn't all crass, though, people had fun with it, and many of the 19th-century valentine greetings were quite clever and often humorous. And from these early beginnings in America, children were included in the exchange—it wasn't just about adult romantic love, but also about parents' affection for their children, and children's friendships, too.
The Hallmark company has a collection of historic American valentines at its headquarters in Kansas City, as does the Hennepin History Museum. (The image above is from Indiana University.) I like to think of this fanciful correspondence as early examples of mail art, but that might just be me seeking to confirm my worldview. The mailing of valentines peaked around 1850, at which time the post offices were swamped with seasonal mail, much like they are now at Christmastime.
It appears that ever since Chaucer's time, the holiday has taken on many meanings, from birds singing and pairing up, to courtly romance and poetry, to more lighthearted gestures of love and affection. I suppose people over the years have made of it what they like, according to their preferences and, dare I say, worldviews. And isn't that really the best sort of holiday?
I hope you had a happy Valentine's Day, however you chose to mark the day.