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Though popular modern sources link unspecified Greco-Roman February holidays alleged to be devoted to fertility and love to St Valentine's Day, Professor Jack Oruch of the University of Kansas argued that prior to Chaucer, no links between the Saints named Valentinus and romantic love existed. Thus, it is immaterial to the history of Valentine's Day whether or not in the ancient Athenian calendar the period between mid-January and mid-February was the month of Gamelion, dedicated to the sacred marriage of Zeus and Hera.
In Ancient Rome, Lupercalia, observed February 13 through 15, was an archaic rite connected to fertility, without overtones of romance. Lupercalia was a festival local to the city of Rome. The more general Festival of Juno Februa, meaning "Juno the purifier "or "the chaste Juno," was celebrated on February 13-14. Pope Gelasius I (492-496) abolished Lupercalia.
While it is a common opinion that the Christian church may have decided to celebrate Valentine's feast day in the middle of February in an effort to christianize celebrations of the pagan Lupercalia, no connection has been demonstrated.
Geoffrey Chaucer by Thomas Occleve (1412)
Chaucer's love birds
While some claim the first recorded association of Valentine's Day with romantic love is in Parlement of Foules (1382) by Geoffrey Chaucer this may be the result of misinterpretation. Chaucer wrote:
This poem was written to honor the first anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia. A treaty providing for a marriage was signed on May 2, 1381. (When they were married eight months later, he was 13 or 14, and she was 14.)
Readers have uncritically assumed that Chaucer was referring to February 14 as Valentine's Day; however, mid-February is an unlikely time for birds to be mating in England. Henry Ansgar Kelly has pointed out that in the liturgical calendar, May 2 is the saints' day for Valentine of Genoa. This St. Valentine was an early bishop of Genoa who died around AD 307.
Chaucer's Parliament of Foules is set in a fictional context of an old tradition, but in fact there was no such tradition before Chaucer. The speculative explanation of sentimental customs, posing as historical fact, had their origins among eighteenth-century antiquaries, notably Alban Butler, the author of Butler's Lives of Saints, and have been perpetuated even by respectable modern scholars. Most notably, "the idea that Valentine's Day customs perpetuated those of the Roman Lupercalia has been accepted uncritically and repeated, in various forms, up to the present"
Medieval period and the English Renaissance
Using the language of the law courts for the rituals of courtly love, a "High Court of Love" was established in Paris on Valentine's Day in 1400. The court dealt with love contracts, betrayals, and violence against women. Judges were selected by women on the basis of a poetry reading.
At the time, the duke was being held in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt, 1415.
Valentine's Day is mentioned ruefully by Ophelia in Hamlet (1600-1601):
Valentine's Day postcard, circa 1910
The reinvention of Saint Valentine's Day in the 1840s has been traced by Leigh Eric Schmidt. As a writer in Graham's American Monthly observed in 1849, "Saint Valentine's Day... is becoming, nay it has become, a national holyday." In the United States, the first mass-produced valentines of embossed paper lace were produced and sold shortly after 1847 by Esther Howland (1828-1904) of Worcester, Massachusetts. Her father operated a large book and stationery store, but Howland took her inspiration from an English valentine she had received, so clearly the practice of sending Valentine's cards had existed in England before it became popular in North America. The English practice of sending Valentine's cards appears in Elizabeth Gaskell's Mr. Harrison's Confessions (published 1851). Since 2001, the Greeting Card Association has been giving an annual "Esther Howland Award for a Greeting Card Visionary." The U.S. Greeting Card Association estimates that approximately one billion valentines are sent each year worldwide, making the day the second largest card-sending holiday of the year behind Christmas. The association estimates that women purchase approximately 85 percent of all valentines.
Since the 19th century, handwritten notes have largely given way to mass-produced greeting cards. The mid-nineteenth century Valentine's Day trade was a harbinger of further commercialized holidays in the United States to follow.
In the second half of the twentieth century, the practice of exchanging cards was extended to all manner of gifts in the United States, usually from a man to a woman.Such gifts typically include roses and chocolates packed in a red satin, heart-shaped box. In the 1980s, the diamond industry began to promote Valentine's Day as an occasion for giving jewelry. The day has come to be associated with a generic platonic greeting of "Happy Valentine's Day." As a joke, Valentine's Day is also referred to as "Singles Awareness Day." In some North American elementary schools, children decorate classrooms, exchange cards, and eat sweets. The greeting cards of these students often mention what they appreciate about each other.
The rise of Internet popularity at the turn of the millennium is creating new traditions. Millions of people use, every year, digital means of creating and sending Valentine's Day greeting messages such as e-cards, love coupons or printable greeting cards.
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