Valentine’s Day — also known as Saint Valentine’s Day, the Feast of Saint Valentine or by the apt initials “VD” — is observed on Feb. 14 each year, which happens to be the same day as National Organ Donor Day, thereby enabling you to give that special someone your heart twice.
After New Year’s Day, Valentine’s Day is the world’s second most celebrated holiday — take that, Christmas! — and also ranks among the oldest. The tradition of presenting flowers, candy and greeting cards dates back some 600 years. Just keep that in mind when you text your significant other a “kiss smiley” emoticon and expect that to suffice.
The holiday began as a liturgical celebration of a third-century early Christian saint known for performing weddings of soldiers in defiance of the military prohibition against marriage. He is also the patron saint of Russell Stover.
Associations between Valentine’s Day and romance first came via poet Geoffrey Chaucer in early 1400s, a time noted for courtly love poetry (as well as bubonic plague). By the middle of the 15th century, Valentine’s Day had evolved into an occasion for people to openly express love for each other, which makes sense considering 1/3 of Europe had just succumbed to the Black Death — lots of repopulating to do.
Interestingly enough, many elements of contemporary Valentine’s Day originated in England, a country whose name is as synonymous with romance as it is culinary art. In fact, the verse “roses are red, violets are blue,” comes from Edmund Spenser’s 1590 epic poem “The Faerie Queene.” It is also the first documented usage of “2GETHA 4EVA.”
Paper valentines, themselves, also originated in England; by the mid-1800s, factory production began. In 1847, Esther Howland of Worcester, Massachusetts introduced mass-produced valentines to the United States. This coming Valentine’s Day, the U.S. Greeting Card Association estimates nearly 200 million paper valentines will be sent. To put that number in perspective, only 126 million ballots were cast in the 2012 presidential election.
Factoring in children’s classroom Valentine’s Day celebrations, the total number of annual valentines exchanged nationwide eclipses 1 billion, the majority going to schoolteachers. The rest go to Justin Bieber.
These days, Valentine’s Day has grown into a commercialized holiday on par with Halloween, Mother’s Day and Income Tax Day (I know my little dependents can’t wait to hang up their 401K stockings). Valentines now extend to all manner of gifts, from roses to candy to jewelry to Lexuses — even control top panty hose. No joke: my wife’s friend recently texted her a photo of a store display in Chicago advertising “Valentine’s Day Special: Buy 1 Get 1 Free Medi Surgical Stockings.”
Of course, Valentine’s Day isn’t luxury sport sedans and support hosiery for everyone. Feb. 14 is also a date historically associated with carnage, and not just in the context of middle school dating. In 1929, it saw the execution of seven Al Capone gang rivals (an event known as the “Valentine’s Day Massacre”) as well as the firebombing of Dresden in 1945, and, in the past few years, multiple acts of terrorism and violence. There’s nothing funny about that. There is, however, something funny about the Canadian Asbestos Strike of 1949, which also took place on Valentine’s Day.
Famous Valentine’s Day birthdays include: demographer and political economist Thomas Malthus (oh, baby!); Carl Bernstein of Woodward and Bernstein (ooh la la!) and Teller of Penn and Teller (rrrowr!).
History aside, people mark Valentine’s Day in many different ways. Couples typically go out for expensive meals or travel to romantic destinations, often choosing the occasion to “pop the question,” by which I mean “why do we keep going to such crowded rip-offs for Valentine’s Day year after year after year?”
And of course, Valentine’s Day has also come to be associated with many signs and symbols — just look at the seasonal aisle of your local supermarket — few more popular than Cupid, hearts and roses.
Cupid, the ancient Roman god of desire, affection and erotic love (in fact, in Classical Greek mythology, Cupid’s name is Eros) usually depicted nude or diapered, although sometimes wearing pasties if required by local ordinance. In a nutshell, Cupid inspires romance by shooting his special arrow — nothing suggestive about that. Cupid is the son of Venus and Mars, making him equal parts love and war. Nothing suggestive about that, either.
The heart has long represented human emotion. In its familiar red two-lobed iteration, the heart symbol first appeared as a playing card suit in the 15th century. However, scholars dispute what the shape actually represents, as it only bears vague anatomical resemblance to the real human heart. Various other body parts — male and female alike — have been suggested as possibilities for the original symbolism, and they all make convincing arguments. Of course, that doesn’t mean you want to think about those body parts when you’re eating Lucky Charms, either.
Ancient symbols of love and beauty dating back to ancient Greece, roses are by far the most common flowers given on Valentine’s Day. Although, if you really wanted to express your love by way of horticulture, you’d give that special someone a cactus instead.
Think about it. No matter what you do, it’s nearly impossible to kill a cactus; roses die in a matter of days.
• Slack Tide appears every other Sunday in Neighbors. Geoff Kirsch will be appearing as part of the monthly live storytelling event “Mudrooms,” this Wednesday, Feb. 13, 7 pm at the Holy Trinity Church. February’s topic: “Domesticity.”