Although legend says St. Valentine’s Day began as a day to honor a saint devoted to love, all things affiliated with love have come into play on Feb. 14. Chocolate, flowers and heart-shaped candies with cute little sayings are purchased each year to celebrate the day.
But in the early days of the holiday, there was no chocolate or candy hearts. Chocolate wasn’t even popular until the early 18th century, and even then it was first consumed as a drink, said William Heim, associate professor of English at USF.
“If a gentleman is really serious about the young lady, forget about chocolates and forget about flowers,” Heim said.
In fact, the traditional gift on St. Valentine’s Day was a pair of gloves to symbolize a request for a lady’s hand in marriage, Heim said.
But traditions fade, and so do the superstitions that surround them. For instance, not many contemporary women take notice of the first bird they see on Valentine’s Day. However, an old tradition used the bird sighting to decipher what type of man they would marry, Heim said. A black bird meant the lady would marry a minister while a robin meant a sailor. Sighting a sparrow signified one would become a farmer’s wife, and a yellow-colored bird meant the future husband would be rich. A spinster would have glimpsed a woodpecker as the first bird of the day.
Birds may have been recognized as symbolic creatures thanks to another myth about the day of love.
“Supposedly, Valentine’s Day is the day when all the birds pick their mates,” Heim said.
Mating and fertility may actually be the true derivatives of Valentine’s Day according to some.
It is believed that St. Valentine’s Day was another attempt by the Catholic Church to dissuade people from practicing a pagan holiday, in this case Lupercalia, a fertility festival, which began on Feb. 15.
But just as widely received is the legend of the actual Saint Valentine.
“Unlike Saint Patrick and many of the other saints, whether there really was a Saint Valentine is questionable,” Heim said. “As to the real Saint Valentine, it’s anybody’s guess.”
History has thrown up a number of theories surrounding Saint Valentine.
One legend speaks of a saint named Valentine who was martyred for marrying couples during a time when the Roman emperor Claudius had outlawed new marriages, according to the History Channel’s Web site. Claudius found it difficult to recruit men to go to war because they didn’t want to leave their wives, so he prohibited people from getting married. Valentine did not agree and secretly married couples, though his efforts landed him in prison.
Another legend the History Channel’s Web site mentions intertwines with that and claims that while in prison, Valentine fell in love with a woman — who some say was the jail keeper’s daughter, a blind girl sent by her father to be cured by Valentine. Before Valentine’s execution, he sent his love a final letter and signed it: “From your Valentine.”
Valentine’s letter became the first valentine — a sentimental or humorous card sent to a sweetheart on Saint Valentine’s Day — as defined by The American College Heritage Dictionary.
The humorous aspect to valentines started when they became popular in Europe in the early 1800s, according to Hallmark’s Web site. The Penny Post offered printed valentines that were sent out with postage to be paid by the receiver. This led to valentines being sent as practical jokes, according to Hallmark’s Web site.
Sending valentines eventually became popular in America as well. Esther Howland sold the first American valentine in 1849, more than 65 years before Hallmark produced its first.
Today, 900 million Valentine’s Day cards are exchanged each year, according to Hallmark’s Web site. The only holiday when more cards are sold is Christmas.
People that plan to send a valentine may want to adhere to another superstition noted by Heim.
“In order for the valentine to be effective it must be sent anonymously, or else it’s jinxed,” Heim said.