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Valentine’s Day traditions may be older than you think

Published on

Phil Egan

I stumbled across an interesting fact recently – that the oldest known greeting card in existence is a Valentine’s letter dating from the 1400’s.

The letter, it turns out, is held today in the manuscript collections of the British Museum. Penned in French by the Duc d’Orleans, it was written while he was a captive in the Tower of London following the 1415 Battle of Agincourt.

Je suis desja d’amour tamne
Ma tres doulce Valentine,

or, “I am already sick with love, my very gentle Valentine.”

What’s more, the celebrating of Valentine’s Day goes back even further. Just as many of our Christmas customs trace their origins to the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, the roots of Valentine’s Day can be found in the Roman feast of Lupercalia, a fertility festival observed annually February 13-15

Like many ancient Roman celebrations, the early Church Christianized them. The rituals were so deeply embedded in the pagan psyche that when a 5th century Pope declared Feb. 14 St. Valentine’s Day he sought to incorporate the Lupercalia traditions rather than ignore them.

Legend says that St. Valentine, later martyred, fell in love with his jailer’s daughter. His love note to her signed, “from your Valentine,” was, according to the story, the very first Valentine greeting of love.

By the 15th century in France, Valentine’s had become an annual feast day celebrating romantic love.

By the 17th century, Shakespeare’s Hamlet was quoting Ophelia as saying:

Tomorrow is St. Valentine’s Day
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window
To be your Valentine.

In 1590, Sir Edmund Spencer wrote the following lines:

She bath’s with roses red, and violets blue.
And all the sweetest flowers that in the forest grew.

By the 18th century, homemade greeting cards had changed the lines to:

The rose is red, the violets blue
The honey’s sweet, and so are you.

Pre-printed Valentine’s cards first appeared in Georgian Britain. By Victorian times advances in printing allowed Valentine’s cards to be mass-produced, and after the introduction of the Penny Post the circulation of cards quickly multiplied.

Not all Valentine’s cards spoke of love, though. According to cultural historian Anna Maria Barry, “Vinegar Valentine” cards could also be purchased.

One that survives contains the following lines:

On account of your talk of others’ affairs
At, most dances you sit, warming the chairs                                  

Because of the care with which you attend
To all others’ business you haven’t a friend.

Here’s wishing all Journal readers a Happy Valentine’s Day!

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