GREENVILLE — When “Sleepless in Seattle” premiered in theaters across America in 1993, the romantic comedy, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, inspired a generation to consider the age-old question of star-crossed, fated love; a tale of two strangers (named Sam and Annie) who, upon meeting by chance, find themselves “perfectly matched” as a result of some not-so-perfect life circumstances.
The movie ends with Sam and Annie romantically holding hands atop the Empire State Building, as Jimmy Durante’s gruff voice croons of the importance of love and “making just one someone happy.”
While this cinematic moment is a heartfelt tribute to Valentine’s Day, February 14th has an checkered history, steeped in pagan lore, Christian legend, and artful tradition.
The origin of Valentine’s Day can be traced back to the ancient pagan celebration of Lupercalia, a fertility festival dedicated to the horned Roman god of agriculture, Faunus, as well as Romulus and Remus, the twin founders of Rome. Occurring annually on the “Ides of February” (13-15), the festival was also known as Dies Februatus (after ritual instruments of purification, called februa) and allegedly fended off evil spirits, releasing fertility to inhabitants of the city.
A later Christian legend contends that in third century Rome, the Emperor Claudius II (known as Claudius the Cruel) outlawed marriage for young men because he required more soldiers to carry out Rome’s military campaigns. Valentine, a priest (perhaps, even, a bishop) recognized the injustice of the decree, and secretly performed marriages for young couples, in defiance of imperial law. When Valentine’s “treason” was discovered, Claudius ordered that he be beaten with clubs and beheaded, and his mandate was carried out on Feb. 14, 270 A.D. One romantic version of the story alludes to a jailer’s daughter befriending the priest, who, upon his death, discovered a final note signed, “from your Valentine.”
In 496, Pope Gelasius I discouraged non-Christian ritual feasts by declaring Feb. 14 as “St. Valentine’s Day.” In spite of this effort, it was commonly believed throughout the Middle Ages that Feb. 14 was the beginning of bird-mating season, and a sign of good luck for love and fertility. Even the famed English poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, commented upon this phenomenon in his poem, Parliament of Fowls, in 1375. The oldest known “valentine” note was written by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife after the Battle of Agincourt, in 1415, while imprisoned in the Tower of London. By the end of the 18th century, it was common for friends and lovers to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes, especially on Valentine’s Day.
In the early 1700s, Americans colonists brought with them the old-world traditions of hand-made valentines. This art was perfected in the 1840s, when Esther A. Howland began selling homemade valentines made with ornate lace, ribbons and colorful “scrap” images. By 1900, innovations in print technology allowed mass-produced cards to replace handwritten letters.
Although 145 million Valentine’s Day cards are sent each year (surpassed only by Christmas), other Valentine’s Day gift traditions emerged . For centuries, flowers have been used to convey intentions of love and marriage from the sender to his or her intended, especially on Valentine’s Day. King Charles II of Sweden studied the oriental language of flowers, known as Selam, after spending 5 years of exile in Turkey; upon his return in 1715, he “spoke” the language of love and affection through the symbolism of bouquets of flowers at court. Red roses were a particular favorite to express deep and abiding love. In 1861, Richard Cadbury started packaging chocolates in elaborate, heart-shaped boxes to increase his sales. Likewise, in 1847, Boston pharmacist Oliver Chase created the first candy hearts as sore-throat lozenges. By 1866, Chase and his brother, Daniel, perfected the lozenge by inventing a special “printer” made with vegetable dye, to convey sayings directly onto the lozenges, such as “be mine,” and “I love you.”
In spite of the COVID-19 pandemic, 6 million couples are likely to get engaged this year on Valentine’s Day 2021, and 5.4 million American households will give their pets a Valentine’s gift (or two). In addition, over 250 million roses will be grown for Valentine’s Day, and Americans will exchange 190 million greeting cards, with total spending expected to exceed $18.2 billion, according to the National Retail Federation.
Valentine’s Day is a sentimental journey which celebrates the personal story of a passionate hero, and the bonds of affection upon the human heart. No matter the card we choose to send or the item we choose to give, just remember that love, itself, is the most cherished and irreplaceable gift one can give or receive in any year.