Some of us can remember back to the time when valentines were associated with bits of pretty ribbon, white doilies and colored paper. These were the times in elementary school when each classmate gave, and received, a valentine from their schoolmates. Our teacher would decorate a box with all kinds of symbols for this special time, and we would place our cards in that box, waiting for the end of the day and the giving of these cards. Then, during the last part of the school day, the books were put away, and each class would have their Valentine’s Day party. We always had refreshments, and then gave out the valentines. This was a special time for each of us, because it meant getting a valentine message from each one in our class, including our teacher. And, we did not realize at the time that those little things we would do in our early years would be such great remembrances for us today.
Each of us made sure we bought, or made, the most beautiful valentine for our teacher, since this was a special person in all of our lives. Our teacher was also the one who got the party together, and gave each of us a beautiful and meaningful valentine. One of the special treats to us was the confectionary hearts with messages such as “Be Mine”, or “I Love You”. By the end of the school day, we all had a feeling of being “special” as we headed home.
Valentine’s Day is always officially celebrated on February fourteenth, no matter what day of the week that happens to be. Today it has evolved into a more expensive holiday than it was during my elementary school days, with the addition of expensive roses and candy. When I was growing up, most people celebrated Valentine’s Day with a card or inexpensive candy. Now, the holiday is celebrated with an expensive dinner, cards, roses, chocolates, teddy bears, jewelry and almost anything a person wants to give to a “sweetheart”.
From my research relating to Valentine’s Day, I have found that there are traces of both ancient Roman and Christian tradition. According to one legend, Saint Valentine was a priest serving in Rome during the third century. Emperor Claudius II decided that single men were better soldiers than those with wives and families, and outlawed marriage for his potential soldiers. Saint Valentine realized that this decree was an injustice, defied it and performed marriages for young lovers in secret. Claudius soon discovered what Valentine was doing, and ordered that he be killed.
Other stories allude to the fact that Valentine may have been put to death for helping Christians escape from Roman prisons where they were tortured and beaten. One of these legends tells that Valentine sent the first ‘valentine’ greeting himself. It is believed that while he was in prison, he fell in love with a young girl who was said to be the jailor’s daughter. She visited him while he was imprisoned, and one story told that she was blind and that Valentine healed her eyes. The legend concludes with the idea that Valentine wrote her a letter before his death, and signed it ‘From your Valentine,’ which is an expression still used today. The early valentines were made by hand, using colored paper, water colors and colored inks, with some of these still seen today. During the Victorian era, some of the most unusual valentines were created by lonely sailors, who used seashells to create hearts, flowers and other designs or to just cover heart-shaped boxes. Some of the first and still used symbols for Valentine’s Day are the red rose, lace, love knots, lovebirds and the “X” sign. Red signifies strong feelings; lace has been used to make women’s handkerchiefs, and the dropping of a handkerchief has been used to “encourage” the right man to pick it up and begin a conversation. Love knots were made from ribbon or drawn on paper, and are loops with no beginning or end. These were a symbol of everlasting love. The lovebirds are found in Africa, and get the name because they sit so closely together in pairs, as do sweethearts. And finally, the “X” sign represents a kiss. This began, as most of us know, because people could not write their name, and placed an “X” on documents. In Medieval times, the signer placed a kiss upon the “X” to show that he was sincere; therefore, this is how the kiss and the letter “X” came to be synonymous. It was also believed that the “X” was chosen as a pledge in the name of Christ, since the “X”-or Chi symbol-is the twenty-second letter of the Greek alphabet and has been used to represent Christ in church history.
Valentine’s Day began its popularity in Great Britain during the seventeenth century, and by the middle of the eighteenth century friends and lovers in all social classes began to exchange handwritten notes or tokens of affection. Printed cards began to replace written letters by the end of the century, and cheap postage rates allowed all classes of people to take advantage of sending their greetings to each other.
During the early 1700’s, Americans began exchanging hand-made valentines, and in 1847 Esther Howland began selling the first mass-produced valentines in America. She began a successful business in her Worcester, Massachusetts home with hand-made cards which were based on British models. Howland’s first cards were very elaborate creations, made with lace, ribbons and colorful pictures. The United States Greeting Card Association estimated that one billion valentines are sent each year worldwide, making this day the second largest card-sending holiday of the year behind Christmas.
So now, when any of us look at those special valentines from years past, we can truly say that we are looking at history and reliving old memories. Valentine’s Day is the time to ask that special someone, “Will You Be My Valentine?” We should remember to study and learn from the past in order to live in the present and prepare for the future.
Pat Guffey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org