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Published Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Valentine’s Day Primer

It’s flowers, candy and something. I just can’t think of it.

My tendency is to write long winded articles with extensive details and cool asides. However, as this is for Valentine’s Day, a holiday associated with love notes, candy, flowers and something else I can’t recall, I’m going to try and keep it as brief as possible. You’ll get some great history, a few shopping tips, a love note or two and all kinds of advice for your favorite cherub and heart shaped holiday.

First off, some history.

The real images of the St. Valentine’s skulls are sort of gross.

Just know, for starters, that no one knows who this “Valentine” is. The day itself is traditionally referred to as “St. Valentine’s Day” or the “Feast Day of St. Valentine”, but according to who you ask, this Valentine might have been a priest, a bishop, or a merchant. He might have been Roman, he might have been Orthodox, there’s just no telling. What we do know, since all of these stories are collected in things called Martyrologies is that a bunch of guys named Valentine died in ways that are so horrible that they all became saints.

There are two such saints mostly buried on the Via Flaminia in Italy. I say mostly because the skull of one is exhibited in the Basilica of Santa Maria, and some other pieces are scattered around other churches. There’s another St. Valentine’s head in New Minster, Winchester and I’m honestly not sure which of the Valentine’s heads it is. Multiple heads of St. Valentine’s have been removed from graves and put on display. That’s more than one head.

Some scholars have connected our modern celebration of Valentine’s Day with the Roman Lupercalia, a holiday where people ran through the streets naked and priests wore goatskins and the vestal virgins burned salt cakes. Just like we do today. Right? Other scholars have pointed out that while Lupercalia fell on the same set of days (February 13-15th) there’s actually no evidence connecting the two at all.

And almost no one wears Valentine’s Day goat skins anymore.


It appears that people celebrated the Feast Day of St. Valentine without romance at all. Until a royal guy named Richard II got married to a lady named Anne of Bohemia sometime in February of 1381 and a year later a guy named Chaucer wrote a poem about it. Since Chaucer turned out to be a pretty big deal, his poem was widely read.

They must have been getting jewelry, because sex wasn’t invented yet.

It was a love poem. A February based love poem. You get where this is going? Well, slow down, because the process took centuries.

After Chaucer, Love + Valentine’s Day kind of, sort of became a thing. People writing poems to each other over the next hundred years occasionally called themselves “valentines”. Ophelia did it in Hamlet. And then, in the late 1700s, it blew up. Valentine’s Day went crazy. If you weren’t writing Valentine’s Day love poems on paper which was specially printed for that purpose by printers who were making a fortune, then you weren’t getting any of whatever it was people wanted to get from their special someone in the 18th century.

Guidebooks were even written for hopelessly non-poetic types who desperately needed to write love poems but had no idea how. These were followed quickly by books of valentines that included humorous replies from the ladies, and specialized books for valentines of different professions, age groups and nationalities. You might ply your old-timey love with such gems as *:

If virginity’s a treasure,
You are rich beyond all measure.

Or the more risqué (The following is meant to be sent with a pair of garters):

These garters, made of silken twine,
Were fancied by your valentine,
The motto, dictated by love,
Is simply, “Think on what’s above.”

For some reason, the habit of including a ‘reply’ for the valentine has fallen out of favor. It may be because the replies were often cruel and terrible, because everyone’s great-great-grandmothers were hard women living in hard times. Whatever the reason, if you got a bum valentine, you could send a ready-made reply:

Go hang yourself, for aught you’re worth,
You were a scoundrel from your birth.
And if you cannot buy a rope,
Some fool will trust you one I hope.

That’s right. There was a time when valentines were handled like epic rap battles, but with special paper and perfumed envelopes.

The moral of the story...

For those who don’t know, garters were where old-timey ladies kept their cards for playing dirty poker, and their single shot pistols.

Here is that Valentines Day has evolved over the centuries to mean different things. In the 13th century, it was about feasting in the name of people who had been dismembered for their faith. In the 18th century, it was about getting brutal replies to your love notes. In the modern age, we often worry about spending Valentines alone. Or, if you’re with someone, you worry about how to spend your special day so that you won’t be in horrible trouble.

But I’m going to break down this holiday in a fast, easy way. One, if you’re alone, don’t sweat it. Learn to love yourself and on February 15th enjoy the sales of discounted candy (As I will definitely be doing). If you’re with someone, remember these simple rules: Candy causes tooth decay, flowers die in a few days, love notes are hard to write (But you should still try) and jewelry is forever.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

* Valentine’s poems sourced from the “New and Complete Valentine Writer for 1805”