Throughout the ages, many cultures have paused to celebrate love and romance in mid February. Whether this is because it is usually cold out and in the days before television what more fun was there, cannot be ascertained. One must concede, however, that people must have loved at other times of year. Otherwise, everyone who was ever born would have his or her birthday in late November!
Valentines Day may date as far back as Roman times and their festival of Lupercalla, which marked the time for all good erotics to step forward and honor Juno Februata, the goddess of feverish love (febris). She should not be confused with non-Roman, Peggy Lee, who sang of a fever that was more or less the same, but of a different period. Every year on the Ides of February, love notes or billets would be drawn to partner men and women for dinner, dancing, a few drinks and well
Early Christians were unable to continue this
tradition. In a realistic attempt to curb sensual delights, the clergy encouraged celebrants to substitute the names of saints. (Is it here where original guilt begins or did that come later? And think about this for a moment: If you change what you call it, do you change what it is?) In any case, Lupercalla was no saint and therefore died by the wayside as celebrants (sinners by first choice) were ordered to emulate for the next twelve months the ideals represented by the particular saint they had chosen. Some early Christian erotic found a way to keep Lupercalla going by turning the feast of the flesh into a ritual of romance! (It is perhaps here where the expression truly began: when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.)
So who was this guy Valentine anyway? Well, records dont exist, and so one legend is as close to the truth as any other. It is known that the Church selected a single saint, St. Valentine aka Valentinus, to battle the pagan goddess, Juno. Juno was also known to the Romans as the goddess of women and marriage. Valentinus had been martyred on February 14 around the year 270 and ironically, by all records was a chaste man, unschooled in the art of love. According to one legend, Valentinus ignored a royal decree from Emperor Claudius II (also affectionately known as Claudius The Cruel) that forbade all marriages and betrothals. The law was imposed because the king believed that the reason he could not get soldiers to join his military leagues was because they didnt want to leave their loves and/or family. (He did not realize that his winning personality and terrible halitosis were among the real reasons he could find no true followers.)
Valentinus was a priest and in this capacity along with another one, Saint Marias, aided the Christian martyrs and secretly married couples. Supposedly caught in the act of conducting a ceremony (and he didnt even get a piece of wedding cake), Valentinus was imprisoned and condemned to be beaten to death with clubs. If that didnt do the job, there were further instructions to cut off his head.
As the story goes (and it does get better), while imprisoned the future saint cured a girl (the jailers daughter) of her blindness. She fell madly in love with Valentinus and on the eve of his execution, he managed to slip a parting message to her. The note was, can you guess, signed "From your Valentine." (It is rumored that she was the ancestor of a group of people who much later learned to care enough to send the very best.)
Despite the consistent efforts of the church, Valentines Day continued to echo Lupercalla in the respect that men and women, married or single, continued to draw lots to select a "valentine." Once paired, the couple exchanged gifts and love tokens. This custom persisted well into the 18th century, although gradually the gift giving became solely the responsibility of the man. This helped to bring an end to the random drawing of names, since many men did not appreciate having to buy costly gifts for women who were not of their own choosing. Free selection also gave a much more serious twist to the concept of couples.
Written valentines made their first appearance in 1415. The imprisoned Charles, Duke of Orleans, fought his lonely confinement by writing romantic verses to his wife. By the sixteenth century written valentines were so popular that St. Francis de Sales, fearing for the souls of his English flock, sermonized against them. Manufactured cards, decorated with cupids and hearts, appeared near the end of the eighteenth century. Even into the nineteenth century, there was no more popular way to declare ones undying love and affection than through the words of a purchased valentine card. Many of the cards were true objets dart, hand-painted and often lavishly decorated with laces, silk or satin flowers (many made from the feathers of tropical birds), glass filigrees, gold-leaf and even perfumed sachets!
In an odd twist, the popularity of Valentines Day had a major effect on the development of the modern post office. Until the mid 1800s, the cost of sending mail was prohibitive and far beyond the range of the average person. The recipient and not the sender usually demanded payment for mail. A woman receiving a card from an ardent admirer that spoke of her priceless love, had to pay for that compliment. Until the advent of the penny post, valentines were mostly hand delivered by the prospective lover.
The cold hand of technology has also found its way into the Valentine custom. Today, a card is hardly enough as a declaration of affection; usually chocolates and flowers accompany it and sometimes even more. But the card reflects our modern times and one can find, without searching too long, cards that play romantic music, let you record a romantic and/or steamy message and even a scratch and sniff card, which works well if you are a Cocker Spaniel and shy about declaring your love.
And so my friends, whatever your tastes and preferences, there is a card somewhere that will suit everyone, just as the old saying goes of a cover for every pot. Just be careful what you put on your stove. There is not only the danger of burning whatever it is, but also the chance of igniting one that may never go out. Its up to you, for as Smoky the Bear said so many years ago, "only you can prevent forest fires."
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