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A Little Valentine’s History

It’s the week of Valentine’s Day.  Do you celebrate?  If you look at the stores or watch any television commercials, it seems as if the whole world is celebrating by sending cards and flowers or giving jewelry or taking one’s sweetheart to a romantic dinner.  But how did this lovely holiday originate and where did it start? Would you believe the Roman Empire?

There is a legend that a holy priest in Rome was arrested for continuing to marry young lovers during war time in spite of an order given by Emperor Claudius II forbidding such marriages since young lovers are reluctant to go to war.  The name of the priest was Valentine.  Even though the Emperor tried to force Valentine into renouncing his Christian faith, he refused and was executed on February 14, 269.  In an event recorded years later, Valentine was credited with miraculously curing his jailer’s blind daughter on the eve of his execution.  In the ensuing years after his death, this miracle resulted in his canonization as a saint.  Legend has it that Valentine signed a note to the young girl with “From Your Valentine” which of course, is a phrase still used today.  The legend has grown through the centuries and from approximately 307 forward, the day has become a celebration of love and romance.

During the fourteenth century, Valentine’s Day was celebrated with a feast and Valentine greetings being sung.  By the fifteenth century, Valentine messages were beginning to be written and given anonymously while the sixteenth century began the exchange of small tokens between lovers with the passing of a paper Valentine containing a handwritten note.   The seventeenth century saw the day recognized with the sending of flowers, and by the mid-eighteenth century, Valentine’s Day was celebrated with the exchanging of lavishly decorated handwritten notes.

During the Regency Era, one of the most popular and beguiling methods of paying homage to one’s sweetheart was with a puzzle purse.  A puzzle purse is made of origami-like paper carefully folded into a square determined by a preset pattern.  The resulting folds of the square would often be numbered and read in order as each leaf was opened.   A final message or picture would be found at the very center or “heart” of the puzzle.  Such a wonderfully charming gift provided a rare and precious opportunity to convey a personal message or remembrance to one’s sweetheart.

Another favorite Valentine gift of the time bought by mariners and those who traveled, came to be known as “sailors’ valentines”.  These beautiful pieces consisted of one and more often two, octagon-shaped wooden cases hinged together.  The octagon shape was reminiscent of the compass cases carried onboard ship.  Decorations made from varying types of small sea shells, seeds and other materials were glued to fabric inside the box to form a colorfully distinct design.   Sailors’ valentines gained their name after being thought to be  the  handiwork of sailors as a shipboard diversion from long days and even longer nights at sea.   Fanciful traditions tell of these intricate pieces being made onboard ship as a homecoming gift for one’s sweetheart but they were more than likely purchased at a souvenir shop during their exotic travels.  No matter, the boxes were beautiful tokens of a sailor’s love.

So Valentine’s Day has quite a long and romanic history.  So, think of all the young (and old) sweethearts over the years who expressed their love in so many unique and thoughtful ways and carry on the tradition.  Fend off the February winter cold by spreading a little warmth and a lot of love.

Happy Valentine’s Day!


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