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The Unofficial History of Valentine's Day

V-Day origins according to the net, Valentine events, and a look at Victorian Valentine cards

By Maija Zummo · February 9th, 2011 · Special

One hundred forty one million Valentine’s Day cards are exchanged annually, not including those sent in children’s classrooms (apparently Hallmark was unable to verify at what age children officially receive their cootie’s shot), in order to celebrate love, chocolates wrapped in heart-shaped boxes, underwear with “kiss me” written on the crotch and to give disgruntled single women everywhere a reason to complain on their Facebook pages.

And for what? Because there’s no credible information about why this day even exists, I spent several hours Googling things such as “origin of Valentine’s Day” and “history of Saint Valentine” and why heart symbols are shaped like upside-down butts even though real hearts look more like bagpipes. And it turns out even Wikipedia couldn’t provide me with a satisfactory explanation of why every February 14th I have to eat Necco hearts that say “U R A Q T” on them.

So I turned to the History Channel’s accurate, not-at-all conspiracy theory-riddled Web site, History.com, to find the truth. And, surprisingly, Valentine’s Day has nothing to do with the predictions of Nostradamus, Jesus or the Freemasons. Not only is it not a holiday made up by greeting card companies and the Hershey’s corporation, it is a holiday essentially grounded in nothing.

Here’s the long and short of it: At some point in time, there was perhaps a dude, or possibly some dudes, named Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom were probably martyred. (P.S. The Romans hated Christians, which is why they killed them. A lot of them. Several, in fact, with the same name.)

A few murky legends exist around the origin of our venerated “Saint Valentine,” including that he performed secret marriages for young lovers in Third-Century Rome after Emperor Claudius II outlawed the practice for soldier-aged men; that he might have helped Christians escape from Roman prisons; and even that he sent the first official Valentine’s Day card himself to a jailor’s daughter while he was imprisoned for being Christian. Apparently this last Mr. Valentine wrote a love letter to the young girl signed “from your Valentine,” thus the reason we use this phrase today. (He also may have cured her blindness — a rare, but appreciated, practice in modern Valentine exchanges).

The only thing we know for certain (and by certain I mean “according to Wikipedia”), is that “Valentine” was buried at the Via Flaminia north of Rome on February 14. We have no idea whether the feast of Saint Valentine celebrates all the dudes named Valentine or just one, and for this reason the Catholic Church removed him from the calendar of saints for universal liturgical veneration as revised in 1969.

So, Saint Valentine stopped existing in 1969. Enter History.com’s conspiracy:

“While some believe that Valentine’s Day is celebrated in the middle of February to commemorate the anniversary of Valentine’s death or burial — which probably occurred around 270 A.D. — others claim that the Christian church might have decided to celebrate Valentine’s feast day in the middle of February in an effort to ‘christianize’ celebrations of the pagan Lupercalia festival.”

What? The Catholic Church manipulating a truth to its own end?!

So what made Lupercalia so scary to the Christians? Could it have been the animal sacrifice? The blood-soaked spanking of women? Hard to tell.

In ancient Rome, Lupercalia was a purity/fertility festival, which began on the ides of February (the 15th) to welcome in spring with some house cleaning, celebrate the Roman god of agriculture and also pay homage to Romulus and Remus, the wolf-suckling founders of the great empire.

Members of the Luperci, an order of Roman priests, would go to the fabled cave where Romulus and Remus were raised by their she-wolf in order to sacrifice a goat (for fertility) and a dog (for purification). Then boys would slice the goat’s hide into strips, dip them into the sacrificial blood and slap women’s butts and assorted crops with the bloody strips, apparently making everyone more fertile. Then all the young women in town would put their names in a giant urn and bachelors would reach their hand in and be paired for one year with whatever babe’s name they chose. The matches frequently ended in marriages and/or babies.

But in 498 A.D., Pope Gelasius declared February 14 “St.

Valentine’s Day,” and this ancient Roman version of a key party was deemed un-Christian and outlawed.

So how do we get from Christian conspiracy to the overly hyped, meaningless, sugar-coated holiday of today? (With heart symbols I still don’t quite understand, except that maybe they do in fact look like boobs, butts, vulva or testicles, depending on the way you hold them?)

Apparently the great Geoffrey Chaucer wrote the following poem in his Parlement of Foules (1382): “For this was on seynt Volantynys day/Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make,” (aka “For this was Saint Valentine’s Day/when every bird cometh there to choose his mate”).

It was written to honor the first anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia (they were 15 years old, possibly also the origination of the exchange of the classroom Valentine). And — taa-daa! — we have February 14 and love, together again, without the bloody goat strips.

But what about hearts and heart symbols? Artistotle thought the heart, not the brain, was the seat of emotion, thought and reason, even though “thought” and “reason” rarely apply to love. Ancient Egyptians weighed the heart portion of the soul against the feather of Ma’at as part of your judgement in the underworld. Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer appreciated the human heart so much he kept one in his freezer “to eat later.” The heart is also part of our circulatory system, which could explain the red color. But none of these explain the shape or its relationship to love.

Wikipedia to the rescue: “The seed of the silphium plant, used in ancient times as an herbal contraceptive, has been suggested as the source of the heart symbol.” Used in Greco-Roman cooking, the plant was purported to have many medical uses from treating colds to warts, but according to Pliny the Elder, its chief role was as a contraceptive. As a member of the estrogenic parsley family, it perhaps held abortifacient qualities and was use pharmacologically to prevent or terminate pregnancy. Apparently the now-extinct plant’s seed pods greatly resemble the modern-day heart shape, whose likeness has been found printed on coins from Cyrene, an ancient Greek colony, and hinted at by Catullus in poems to his lover lesbia.

So this year instead of buying your sweetheart a dozen roses, another cliched symbol attached to this “holiday,” why not get creative and get her something she’ll actually use? A dog or goat would be both thoughtful and authentic.

Victorian Valentines
See the Cincinnati Public Library's collection of Victorian Valentine Cards, which includes cards from as far back as 1880, in this multimedia piece produced by Cameron Knight. Catch of glimpse of the popular trends in love and courtship from the era. The library system has digitized this entire collection in its Virtual Library.

Valentine's Day Events and Activities

Hustler Lingerie Show: The ladies VIP night and lingerie show afterparty at Lunar features Doc Johnson, Evolved and System Jo. 7-10 p.m. Feb. 10. Lunar Nightclub, 435 Elm St., Downtown.

Valentine’s Day at The Summit: If you love great food, wine and values, then you will fall in love with the Summit Restaurant’s Valentine’s Day special. Chef Sean Kagy will offer three courses for you and your special Valentine. Wine pairings will also be offered for an additional $10 or champagne for $5. Free valet parking is also available. For reservations call 513-569-4980. 5:30-9:30 p.m. Feb. 10-12. $45. The Summit, 3250 Central Pkwy., The Midwest Culinary Institute, Cincinnati State College, Clifton.

Cincinnati Pops Orchestra: A Hollywood Valentine: Cupid is on the loose this Valentine’s weekend when the Pops is joined by special guest Monica Mancini, daughter of Henry Mancini, for music from some of Hollywood’s most romantic films. 8 p.m. Feb. 11-12, 3 p.m. Feb. 13. $25-94.50. Music Hall 1241 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine.

VDayUC 2011: The Vagina Monologues: V-Day is a global activist movement to end violence against women and girls that raises funds and awareness through benefit productions of Playwright/Founder Eve Ensler’s award-winning play The Vagina Monologues and other artistic works. Ten percent of all proceeds support local efforts to stem violence against women and girls in post-quake Haiti. Engineering Research Center, Room 427. RSVP: vdayuc@gmail.com. 7 p.m. Feb. 11, 3 and 7 p.m. Feb. 12. $10, free with UC ID. Donations to UC’s Women Center are encouraged. University of Cincinnati, 2600 Clifton Ave., Clifton.

Chocolate/Bourbon Food Item Tasting: Come treat your Valentine to samples of chocolate- and bourbon-infused food items from Ruth Hunt Candies, Weisenberger Mills and Bourbon Barrel Foods. 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Feb. 12. Free. Kentucky Haus Craft Gallery, 411 E. 10th St., Newport.

Valentine’s Day at White Castle: Give your loved one a sack full of happiness this Valentine’s Day. For almost 20 years, Whities has cranked up the class on this special day with linens, table service and roses. This is a great opportunity to give your girl that ring she’s been asking for … even if it’s made of chicken. All lovebirds will receive a special White Castle Valentine’s Day vase and will get their photos taken, which can be found at whitecastle.com. 5-8 p.m. Feb. 14. Call 513-559-0575 ext. 14 to select a participating location and make your reservations.

Love Music for Valentines: Looking for something different this Valentine’s Day? Spend your Saturday with friends and enjoy musical entertainment by Jay Mills and some of your favorite Lebanon Theatre Company favorites. Limited seating is available for this event. RSVP by calling 513-228-0932, or by emailing LTC@LTCplays.com. 8 p.m. Feb. 12. $20. Lebanon Theatre Co. 120 E. South St. #11, Lebanon.

Lovesick: This Valentine’s Day weekend, enjoy a crassly humorous “almost” love story by local playwright Maxx McKinley. Snuggle up to your belle or beau or come stag. Either way, be sure not to miss this theatrical gem. 6 p.m. Feb. 12-13. $5. Madisonville Arts Center, 5021 Whetsel Ave., Cincinnati.

Regional Jewish Speed Dating: Find a match at the third-annual Jewish speed dating event. Break the ice with drinks and conversation as young Jewish professionals ages 21-35 from around the region mingle and feel the chemistry in the air. RSVP by Feb. 10 at jypaccess.org. Drinks and appetizers will be on the individual’s tab and a special room rate is available for those who would like to spend the night. 8:30 p.m. Feb. 12. Free with advanced registration. The Westin Cincinnati, 21 East 5th Street, Downtown.

Valentine’s Day Dinner at Hollywood Casino: Enjoy a romantic meal at Final Cut Steakhouse, including seafood pasta, chateaubriand for two and chocolate fondue. $110 per couple. Call 1-888-274-6797 for reservations. Feb. 12-14 … Stop into the Hollywood Marquee Cafe on Valentine’s Day for stuffed portabella mushroom, chicken piccata for two and chocolate mousse. $50 per couple. Reservations not required. Open 4:30-10 p.m. Monday. Hollywood Casino 777 Hollywood Blvd., Lawrenceburg, Ind.

The Last Night at the Speakeazy: Valentines Day Murder Mystery and Dinner: This Murder Mystery Dinner, held on the night of the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, is a great way to spend your Valentine’s Day evening. The murder mystery production with talented local guests also includes your interaction. Doors open at 7 p.m. with featured cocktails to fit the theme. You’re encouraged to dress accordingly. The evening is a benefit for Stop AIDS Cincinnati. 7 p.m. Feb. 14. $30/person, $50/couple. Below Zero Lounge, 1122 Walnut St., Over-the-Rhine.

Valentine’s Day at JR’s Table: Indulge your taste buds in a lavish 6-course dinner for Valentine’s Day at JR’s Table. With an array of courses, there is no question that an exceptional time will be had. To make reservations, contact Maitre d’Marilou Lind directly at 513-621-4777. If you can’t make it for dinner, stop in for a lunch special where you can order a la carte from the lunch menu. Feb. 14. $100; $50 wine pairings. Jean-Robert’s Table, 713 Vine St., Downtown.

Pure Romance Warehouse Sale: Pure Romance wants to make your Valentine’s Day one to remember. All men and women 18 and older are invited to come in and shop around for the perfect gift for you and yours. 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Feb. 9-14. Pure Romance, 150 Commerce Blvd., Loveland.

Jim Brickman’s An Evening of Romance: Join America’s Grammy-nominated “romantic piano sensation” for a special Valentine’s Day concert. 8 p.m. Feb. 14. $38.50-$75. Aronoff Center for the Arts, 650 Walnut St., Downtown.



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