Archived Story

The evolution of a holiday

Published 12:43am Thursday, February 14, 2013

Valentine’s Day wasn’t always Valentine’s Day — at least as we know it. The origin of the “holiday” was the Feast of Saint Valentine, a liturgical celebration of one (or more) early Christian saints by that name. This one was imprisoned by the Romans for marrying soldiers who weren’t supposed to marry and for, essentially, being Christian.
How the persecution of a saint transformed into Valentine’s Day happened in the age of romantics — the high Middle Ages, the time of Chaucer, when courtly love was at its most dramatic. On this day in the 15th century, love was already being expressed in the form of flowers, sweets and cards that spoke of romance.
Of course, in the 15th century, the flowers were picked by hand. The sweets a hard-to-come-by delicacy and the cards were handwritten love letters, often poetry.
But by the late 1700s, Valentine’s Day cards were being produced in bulk. Oddly enough, they were called “mechanical valentines.”
And the holiday grew, commercially, from there: in the 1800s, cards became mass-produced; the exchange of cards transformed into the exchange of gifts by the mid-20th century; in the 1980s the diamond industry jumped on the bandwagon.
Now, the U.S. Greeting Card Association estimates that 190 million Valentine’s Day cards are sent in the United States each year (though many other countries celebrate the day, too). Add to that, many millions more sent via email.
Over the centuries, while the methods for conveyance may have changed drastically, the sentiment remains. Hallmark cards, teddy bears and heart-shaped boxes of chocolates are the handwritten love letters of the past.

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