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Shortly after celebrating New Year’s Day, we often see stores around the country stocking up for Valentine’s Day with heart-shaped items in vivid red and pink hues. For many people today, it may seem as though this celebratory day of love has been around practically forever. Looking at it from a larger perspective, the current version of Valentine’s Day only evolved fairly recently. Its earliest incarnations were a far cry from the chocolate-laden romantic tidings that we enjoy today. In this project, we’ll investigate how Valentine’s Day originated and changed over the centuries.
Valentine’s Day derives its name from St. Valentine. However, historians are still uncertain as to who exactly St. Valentine was. There were actually several saints by that name, and accordingly, many vastly different legends and myths were spawned. One legend suggests that the saint was a priest who used to defy the law in order to secretly marry young couples who were presumably not allowed to be married. Another legend has Valentine wrongly imprisoned. He subsequently falls for the warden’s daughter and writes her secret love notes. The overall theme in most of the Valentine legends portrays St. Valentine as a heroic, downtrodden figure who goes against authoritative figures in his fight for love.
There are some claims that Valentine’s Day may have evolved from a pagan Roman festival called Lupercalia, although historians lack substantial proof of this aspect too. Lupercalia was a fertility celebration held in February by the ancient Romans. It typically involved animal sacrifices, ending with lashings with the bloody animal skins in order to increase women’s fertility. Although these public rites had been banned around the 5th century and most Romans had been converted to Christianity, many of them still clung to the old beliefs. Some historians purport that Christian authorities eventually introduced a Christian celebration to coincide with the feast day of Lupercalia, to allow people to encourage a gradual shift from pagan to sanctioned Christian traditions.
The earliest recorded instances of Valentines and Valentine’s Day have been found in poems and letters dating to around the 15th century. The classic poem that even school children can easily spout originates from an 18th century poem. In its original version, the first two lines read, “The rose is red, the violet’s blue, the honey’s sweet, and so are you.” The practice of sending a Valentine’s Day card only came about during the Victorian years. In those times, discretion and delicacy were a way of life. Accordingly, many took to writing and designing Valentine’s Day cards that could discreetly or anonymously express a person’s amorous feelings for another. This tradition soon caught on and Victorian Valentine’s Day cards became increasingly decorative and fancy. It was customary to create cards that featured delicate cloth or paper lace, colored ribbon, quaint drawings, and delicately suggestive verses.
While Valentine’s cards in Victorian times were usually handmade, enterprising people soon found that they could sell well by mass-producing these paper greetings. This trend exploded in the early to mid-1900s. Apart from simply sending cards, companies also introduced the public to new traditions, like giving a bouquet of roses, a box of chocolate, or expensive diamond jewelry. While the tradition of Valentine’s Day was once centered solely on expressing one’s sentiments of love in a simple but sincere manner, today it has evolved into a mass consumerism event. In many Western countries, Valentine’s Day isn’t only limited to lovers, but is also celebrated among friends, family members and children to show their affection for each other. Accordingly, retailers churn out all manner of items imprinted with hearts and roses for this day, from stationery to pajamas, stuffed toys, mugs, cakes, T-shirts, posters and plenty more. As technology evolved too, people have begun to send Valentine’s Day e-cards instead of physical greeting cards.
Valentine’s Day does have its variations in other parts of the world. Around the UK, different regions have their own takes on it, including a Santa-type character that leaves candy or gifts for children. For the most part, many European countries celebrate Valentine’s Day in a similar manner to the U.S. In some areas like Norway, it tends to be a little low-key, although many customs are borrowed from the American version. Going out for dinner or sending a card is usually customary. On the other hand, the Finnish and Estonian versions of this day focus more on friendship in general, rather than affection that exists only between lovers. The theme of friendship on Valentine’s Day also extends to many Latin American regions, where the custom is to perform deeds to show appreciation for close friends or loved ones. In the East in some regions like India and a few Middle Eastern countries, Valentine’s Day is celebrated in the traditional Western style, as well as in other ways relating to local deities or beliefs. Despite all its local variations, Valentine’s Day is a wonderful way to commemorate our affection, romantic or otherwise, for the people in our lives.
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