Valentine’s Day: A Little History, A Little Perspective

Love really can break your heart, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University described what they called “broken heart syndrome” as high levels of emotional stress that can lead to severe but reversible heart dysfunction in people with otherwise healthy hearts. This Valentine’s Day the amorous among us bought jewelry and skimpy lingerie, chocolates and flowers and went out to nice dinners whispering sweet nothings to loved ones. The loveless and forlorn, whose emotional traumas have benefited them with the perspective to see Hallmark’s conspiracy to line its pockets with greeting card dollars, wallow in self-pity and commiserate with one another (another syndrome of a broken heart). The history of the holiday is open to debate. The middle of February has long been thought of as a fertile time of year, based on the mating seasons of birds and other creatures. Most people claim the holiday marks the death or burial of the martyred St. Valentine in 270 A.D., although the holiday also coincides on the calendar with a pagan festival of spring, and Valentine’s memory may have been invoked to Christianize the Roman celebration. This festival, called Lupercalia, was dedicated to fertility and took place on the 15th of February to honor Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture as well as Rome’s founders Romulus and Remus. The Roman priests would sacrifice a goat, cut up the hide and parade through the streets romantically slapping young women in the face with the bloody goat hide, ensuring the young ladies’ fertility for the coming year. As the festival progressed, the young women would place their names in a large vessel, and the single men of the city would choose a name with whom to be paired with for the year, with the pairing often ending in marriage. The Pope later declared this lottery system to be non-Christian, and it was outlawed, though the holiday maintained its connection to romance and the story of the martyred St. Valentine. According to another tale, the Roman emperor Claudius II decided that single soldiers would be more effective than married ones, so he forbade young men from marrying. Valentine defied the emperor and continued to marry young couples in secret. He was caught and sentenced to death. Legend has it that while in jail, Valentine fell in love with a young girl, possibly the jailor’s daughter, and shortly before his death sent her the first Valentine, lovingly signed “Your Valentine.” In 1835, as a reward for impressing Pope Gregory XVI, an Irish priest was awarded St. Valentine’s remains, which are put on display in a black and gold casket every Valentine’s Day at Whitefriar Street Church in Dublin.This holiday has existed in some form or another since the time of the Romans. In the middle ages, greetings were exchanged, but written valentines did not come into style until around 1400. The oldest known valentine, sent from the Duke of Orleans to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London, dates to 1415 and is still on display at the British Museum. Valentine’s Day was not as commonly celebrated as it is now until the 17th century. By the 18th century in Britain, friends and lovers of all social classes exchanged small handwritten notes and gifts to show their affection. As printing technology improved and postage rates dropped, the Valentine’s Day tradition became more popular. The first mass-produced valentine was introduced in 1840 by Esther Howland, the so called Mother of the Valentine. Today, Valentine’s Day is celebrated throughout the U.S, Canada, Mexico, the U.K, Australia and France. To their credit, the greeting card conspiracy theorists may have a point. About a billion cards are sent for Valentine’s Day each year, coming in behind only Christmas and its 2.6 billion cards. Sales of fresh cut flowers increase well over half in February, and over 50 million roses are exchanged on February 14th alone. A whopping 90 percent of these flowers are bought by men, while 85 percent of all Valentines are bought by women. In Valentine’s name on February 14th, through cards and chocolates, we celebrate the most intense human emotion. It is about passion, alternately making us scream from the mountaintops in ecstasy and bringing us to our knees with devastation. Such is life, and all we can really do is enjoy the tumultuous ride. To those of us giving our hard earned dollars to the scheming Hallmark people, enjoy the best of what our human nature has to offer us. To those who curse that poor martyred saint, take a bit of good news from the New England Journal at least no one has died of a broken heart.