February 14 is Valentine's Day. Although it is celebrated as a lovers' holiday today, with the giving of candy, cards, diamonds, (hint, hint) flowers, or other gifts between couples in love, it originated in 5th Century Rome as a tribute to St. Valentine, a Catholic bishop.
Valentine greetings were popular as far back as the Middle Ages, though written Valentine's didn't begin to appear until after 1400. The oldest known valentine still in existence today was a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt. (The greeting is now part of the manuscript collection of the British Library in London, England.) Several years later, it is believed that King Henry V hired a writer named John Lydgate to compose a valentine note to Catherine of Valois.
Cupid, another symbol of the holiday, became associated with it because he was the Roman god of passion and erotic love. He also was associated with desire. Cupid was the son of Venus, the Roman god of love and beauty. Cupid played a role in several mythical adventures. In Vergil's Aeneid, Cupid prompts Dido to fall in love with Aeneas, with tragic results. Cupid is a central character in the traditional tale of Cupid and Psyche, as told by Apuleius. In modern times, cupid is often depicted as a chubby cherub-like creature with wings, shooting his arrows to inflict desire on his unsuspecting victims. Cupid often appears on Valentine cards or is imprinted on heart-shaped candies.
In addition to the United States, Valentine's Day is celebrated in Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, France and Australia. In Great Britain, Valentine's Day began to be popularly celebrated around the 17th century. By the middle of the 18th, it was common for friends and lovers of all social classes to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes, and by 1900 printed cards began to replace written letters due to improvements in printing technology. Ready-made cards were an easy way for people to express their emotions in a time when direct expression of one's feelings was discouraged. Cheaper postage rates also contributed to an increase in the popularity of sending Valentine's Day greetings.
Americans probably began exchanging hand-made valentines in the early 1700s. In the 1840s, Esther A. Howland began selling the first mass-produced valentines in America. Howland, known as the “Mother of the Valentine,” made elaborate creations with real lace, ribbons and colorful pictures known as "scrap." Today, according to the Greeting Card Association, an estimated 1 billion Valentine’s Day cards are sent each year, making Valentine's Day the second largest card-sending holiday of the year. (An estimated 2.6 billion cards are sent for Christmas.) Women purchase approximately 85 percent of all valentines.
I fondly remember making hand-made Valentines to take to school for 6th grade. Even though we had always handed out Valentines in grade school, this time I had someone “special” to give one to. Steve Weber was his name and it was love at first sight.
At home I got together the art supplies to make it with. Elmer's glue, scissors, scrap paper, ribbon and lace. Getting to use my mom’s “sharp” scissors I excitedly and carefully cut out my hearts making sure they were perfect. As I worked, I bit my tongue lightly with great concentration. I cut a big red paper heart and then a smaller pink one and so on until I was happy with the results. I worked on that Valentine for hours selecting just the right lace, the satin ribbon and then I stopped. What should I write on it?
I walked into the kitchen; “What should I write on my Valentine?” I asked my mom who was cooking supper and smoking her ever present cigarette; “Are you done with the scissors yet Bekkie? I told you to return them to the sewing box when you’re done.” Not answering I silently slunk back into my bedroom. Luckily she didn’t know I liked a boy.
I was stymied, what could I write on the Valentine that would make Steve like me? Even though she was my best friend I knew Barbara Snyder liked him too; all the girls did. I knew she was probably making him a Valentine tonight too. Or worse yet maybe her mom got her store bought cards! How could mine compete with fancy store bought cards? I felt miserable.
I thought about asking my mom to buy store bought cards and then quickly put that bad idea out of my head. Then it came to me; Will You Be Mine? It wasn’t all lovey dovey either. It was simple and seemed perfect. I ran to get the sparkles so I could finish my card. Surely he’ll like it and then me.
The next day at school it was time to pass out the Valentine cards, but I had a plan. I was going to give Steve my card at recess by the big tree, not now. I felt my bravado fade when I saw Barbara Snyder passing out her store bought cards. I watched like a hawk while Steve looked through his cards. He didn’t react to any of them in particular. Gosh he was cute. He turned and locked eyes with me. I turned fire engine red and turned away while I pretended to fiddle with a card that Jerry Lewis had just given me.
At recess I raced down the hill and took my place by the big tree. I got there first, good. Steve would be playing baseball nearby. I wanted to do this before my girlfriends found me and then I spied Steve. He walked right up to me. “Barbara said you like me;” he said somewhat accusingly. I turned 50 shades of red, extended my shaky hand with the card in it and stammered; “This is for you Steve.” He took the card without reading it, hit me really hard on the arm, and ran off to play with his friends.
“He loves me;” I thought to myself triumphantly.
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