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The Odd History of Valentine's Day

From Chaucer to Vinegar Valentines

By Cie McCulloughPublished about a year ago 4 min read
No, that's not a St Valentine, this painting depicts the Roman feast of Lupercalia

Ancient festivals and legends

There were approximately fourteen Christian martyrs named Valentine. There was a bishop in central Italy, a priest in Rome, and a saint in Africa. Saint Valentine in Africa is the only one connected with February 14th, the date being his feast day. There was also a Pope Valentine, but none of these men are in any way associated with romantic love.

There is a legend, based on one ancient text, that Father Valentine of Rome, upon waiting execution, cured the blind daughter of his jailer. American Greetings has further added fuel to this fire by claiming that before his death Father Valentine wrote the very first Valentine's card, sending a note to this girl he had befriended and cured, and signing it "From your Valentine". The first part of the legend might be true; the second is surely not.

Another legend is that the Roman feast of Lupercalia, celebrated on the Ides of February, was co-opted by the church and renamed for St Valentine, since the dates coincide. Lupercalia celebrates Lupa, the she-wolf that raised the founders of Rome - Romulus and Remus. The Lupercal is the cave in which she raised them. This feast is associated with the god Faunus, and consisted of animal sacrifices in the Lupercal with the hopes that this would keep the city healthy and fertile, and at the same time send all evil spirits packing.

Also part of Lupercalia was Februa, the festival of Spring cleaning. Februa is much older in origin and gives us the name of the month February.

February 14th becomes a day of Romance

In 1382, Chaucer wrote:

For this was on seynt Volantynys day Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.


For this was on St Valentine's day When every bird comes to choose his mate.

This is from his poem "Parlement of Foules", or The Parliament of Birds, written for King Richard II and Anne of Bohemia, on the first anniversary of their engagement. However, he was referring to May 2nd, the feast of Bishop Valentine, and not February 14th, that of Saint Valentine. Indeed, it is more likely that birds would be choosing mates in May, rather than February, especially in England.

It is believed by scholars that Chaucer created the myth of St Valentine's Day, using poetic license to write about an old tradition that never existed. Since there are no records of any such tradition before Chaucer, and quite a few soon after, this one poem may be the start of all romantic traditions associated with February 14th.

A few hundred years later Shakespeare also mentions Valentine's Day. Not in any poem or romance or comedy, but in Hamlet.

To-morrow is Saint Valentine's day,

All in the morning betime,

And I a maid at your window,

To be your Valentine.

Then up he rose, and donn'd his clothes,

And dupp'd the chamber-door;

Let in the maid, that out a maid

Never departed more.

—William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 5

The most famous of Valentine rhymes comes from Gammer Gurton's Garland (1784), a 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 shou'd be you.

The Victorian Era, and the sending of cards

What brought the rise of Valentine's Day cards is somewhat unexpected. It was of course the Victorians that brought the custom into prominence, but the reason why is that postal rates went down. It was now possible to send Valentine's greetings anonymously, and sending letters, verse or cards without signing them meant they could be - Gasp! - bit racy. Valentines started to become so popular that many were factory made.

In the US, paper lace valentines were made popular by Esther Howland, whose father owned a stationary store in Worcester, Massachusetts. After she received a valentine from a friend in England, she started making her own, importing all the paper lace and decorations. Esther's business was so popular that she received sole credit for bringing the Valentines Day card to this side of the Atlantic.

Soon a new type of Valentine card cropped up. Not made of lace and butterflies, these cards were known as Vinegar Valentines, or insult cards. The picture featured a caricature of some stereotype, such as a spinster, gossip, lazy worker or know-it-all, and including an insulting poem. When sent as postcards many were confiscated as "unfit to be mailed" by local postmasters. First published in 1858, these cards were usually sent anonymously.

Nowadays about 190 million valentines are given out each February in the US, but that number is only an estimate made by the U.S. Greeting Card Association. That doesn't include handmade, printable or e-cards. Add in those, plus all the fun little cards exchanged by school children, and the number is closer to 15 or 16 million. That's quite a bit of celebrating for a holiday created by a poet from the Middle Ages.

A popular vinegar valentine


About the Creator

Cie McCullough

I write about history, travel, and whatever crosses my mind. I love to explore and learn, and love history as much as science. I take a different view of the world, and do my best to convey that view when I write.

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