Tradition of Valentine’s Day exchanges

Charlotte Nolan Comments On

February 11, 2014

Day after tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. Cupid, the icon of the occasion, is typically shown shooting his arrow into a heart symbolic of inspiring romantic love. In Roman mythology Cupid (Latin Cupido, meaning “desire”) is the god of affection and erotic love. He is often portrayed as the son of the goddess Venus. Legend suggests that a person, or even a deity, who is shot by Cupid’s arrow is filled with uncontrollable desire.

Years ago Valentine’s Day was an occasion inspiring excitement in schools because homeroom mothers planned parties and students exchanged romantic, caustic and sometimes insulting valentines. An example of the latter was typical of one which a boy might send, “You’re dirty and smelly and stink like a dog. You root in the garden just like a hog. Happy Valentine’s Day.”

Back then, each homeroom had an individual valentine box lovingly decorated by two or three of the girls. Their hat and shoe boxes were procured from local merchants, such as the Quality Shop or Powers and Hortons, and then ornately decorated with crepe paper and lace dollies. Homerooms had parties hosted by homeroom mothers. In my particular grade, they were Mrs. Clark Bailey, Mrs. John Byrd Hensley and Mrs. J. Ray Rice.

Valentines Day’s origin is an interesting one. St. Valentine was a priest near Rome in about the year 270 A.D, a time when the church was in great persecution. His ministry was to help the Christians to escape this oppression, and to provide them the sacraments, such as marriage, which was outlawed by the Roman Empire at that time. Legend has it that Saint Valentine performed clandestine Christian weddings for soldiers who were forbidden to marry. The Roman Emperor Claudius II supposedly forbade this in order to grow his army, believing that married men did not make good soldiers. According to legend, in order to “remind them of God’s love and to encourage them to remain faithful Christians,” Saint Valentine is said to have cut hearts from parchment, giving them to the soldiers and persecuted Christians.

Eventually the tradition of giving hearts evolved into exchanging cards, sweets and flowers. Such gifts typically include roses and chocolates packed in a red satin, heart-shaped box. Later on, the diamond industry began to promote Valentine’s Day as an occasion for giving jewelry. It surprised me to learn approximately 190 million valentines are sent in the United States annually. Interestingly enough, when you include the valentine exchange cards made in school activities the figure goes up to 1 billion. Not surprisingly, teachers are the individuals receiving the most valentines cards.

Let me share a personal greeting to the readers of this column. This rhyme, close to the modern cliché Valentine’s Day poem, can be found in Gammer Gurton’s Garland, a 1784 collection of English nursery rhymes:

The rose is red, the violet’s blue,

The honey’s sweet, and so are you.

Thou art my love and I am thine;

I drew thee to my Valentine:

The lot was cast and then I drew,

And Fortune said it should be you.