Did you ever wonder where Valentine's Day came from? We sure have, so we tried to get to the bottom of it this week.
It's a testament to the power writers can have that it seems as though the holiday was invented by one. The first time "Valentine's Day" and its association to romance show up in print is in the work of Geoffrey Chaucer, the Middle Ages scribe most famous for The Canterbury Tales. The fourteenth of February was a holy day in Ancient Rome; it's this that gives the month its name. But no one's been able to prove a connection between the two.
Chaucer was taken with courtly love—part of the knight’s chivalric code—which we now recognize as romance itself. Common features of courtly love include the giving of flowers, displays of thoughtfulness, reverence for womanhood, big gestures, writing love poetry or songs for an intended beloved, and adventures along the way to the eventual consummation of desire. Chaucer wrote Troilus & Criseyde in celebration of courtly love, exploring the nuances of two people in a romantic love courtship to greater degree than had hitherto been attempted.
He did a bang-up job. The story was so good a guy by the name of William Shakespeare adapted it into a play (same name, different spelling) a couple centuries later.
But just before writing this lengthier work, Chaucer wrote a poem called Parlement of Foules (best guesses place it at 1382), in which he connected St. Valentine with the natural phenomenon of birds choosing their mates, and the stirring of our own mate-seeking impulses in the beginning of May. This poem is mostly set in a garden in a dream vision. While a St. Valentine’s Day is mentioned, it’s more likely he intended May 3rd. There’s nothing connecting St. Valentine to lovers before this poem.
By the time Elizabeth Stuart (granddaughter of Mary, Queen of Scots) married Frederick V, Count Palatine of the Rhine, on February 14th, 1613, the date must have been recognized as Valentine’s Day, for John Donne (whose famous line “No man is an island unto himself…” Hugh Grant’s character takes issue with at the start of the great romantic comedy, About a Boy), kicks off his poem celebrating their marriage, “Hayle Bishop Valentine, whose day this is."
When exactly February 14th became St. Valentine’s Day, no one seems to be sure. All that's certain is that near the end of the eighteenth century, in England, Valentine's Day became a widely observed holiday. People enjoyed making their own paper Valentine notes and sending them.
As the Victorian Era began, it became a huge phenomenon. David James points out that British postal reform gave rise to the holiday's commercial aspect:
On 10 January 1840, Great Britain introduced the Uniform Penny Post, meaning that Valentine cards could be mailed for just one penny. The mass produced Valentine card was born. Valentines were sent in such great numbers that postmen were given a special allowance for refreshments to help them through the extraordinary exertions of the two or three days leading up to February 14th.
Just one year after the Uniform Penny Postage, 400,000 valentines were posted throughout England. By 1871, 1.2 million cards were processed by the General Post Office in London.
Valentine's Day, whether or not it's a Hallmark holiday (it's certainly good for the economy), does offer an extra nudge to show appreciation to someone special in your life, be it your spouse, your child, your friend, or your pet.
So, we want to tell you we appreciate you. Thanks for coming by our blog. Thank you for showing interest in our lights. We thought we'd mark the occasion by giving you a sneak peek at one of our new lighting fixtures, which will soon be available.
Nowadays, the symbol of a heart and the color red are closely associated with this holiday. In our new Downing wall sconce, we took the basic shape of the heart symbol and played with it a bit. Where the lines connect at the bottom in an acute angle, we kept the lines going. On top, we didn't allow the lines to meet at their recessed obtuse angle in the center. The result? An open heart.
It is this openness which allows the two halves of the heart to hold illumination aloft. Love lights the way.
Now that we've explored what Valentine's Day was, it encourages us to ask,"What's Valentine's Day today?" That's up to the individual. Some ignore it; others regard it with contempt. Some plan romantic surprises or simply enjoy a fine meal. If nothing else, it's an excuse to stay in pajamas, make some popcorn, and watch a romantic comedy. May we recommend a few?
The Basilica of Saint Maria in Cosmedin holds the purported skull of Saint Valentine (or one of them), crowned with flowers in its reliquary. But if lovers today were to make a pilgrimage to this church, constructed on the ruins of a temple in Rome in the eighth century, it would more likely be due to its inclusion of La Bocca della Verità (The Mouth of Truth), the fearsome face with hollow eyes and mouth featured in this famous scene between Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn in the classic romantic comedy Roman Holiday. If you've never treated yourself to it, now's a fine time.
Marisa Tomei and Robert Downey, Jr. reference this scene in the fun, underrated 90s rom-com Only You. Another wonderful one from the nineties that seems to have slipped through the cracks over time is Lawrence Kasdan's hilarious and smart French Kiss, with Meg Ryan and Kevin Kline in top form. (The preview linked to is terrible, but trust us, you'll be rolling on the floor.) Do you have any good ones for us? Let us know in the comments below!