Monday, February 16, 2009

Valentine’s Day Customs

By: Gwen Miner, Supervisor of Domestic Arts As someone who works in the living history field as an interpreter, I obviously spend a fair amount of time talking about how people lived one-hundred and fifty years ago. One of the topics I have been interested in discovering more about is holidays. How were holidays celebrated? Which holidays were celebrated and how did the traditions of our current holidays come about? I have learned that many, if not most, of the recognized holidays that we celebrate today have pagan roots and many were Christianized. Most became popular nationwide in the last part of the 19th century due to mass-production and in particular commercialization. We really do like buying things related to specific holidays. If you think that Valentine’s Day as it stands today is how it has always been celebrated, think again. There is no solid path of connection between Valentinus, the 3rd century Christian martyr, from where the name Valentine is supposedly derived, to the modern adorned candy heart. Even though the roots of the festivities follow a serpentine path from Pagans to Christians to department store windows, some traditions have been a part of Valentine’s Day for hundreds of years. Valentine’s cards traditionally have been the primary custom associated with Valentine’s Day. The first Valentine card was sent by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife in 1415 when he was a prisoner in the Tower of London. Up to the middle of the 19th century most Valentine notes were handwritten. The custom of exchanging love notes called Valentines evolved in the 19th century. At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution handwritten notes were rapidly replaced by mass-produced greeting cards. Hand-colored lithographed valentines and ones of embossed paper lace were popular from the 1840s to 1860s. As technology increased in the latter part of the 19th century so did the intricacy of the Valentine card. Elaborate punching patterns, use of new materials, and mass-produced images all became more and more prevalent. As the 20th century began, Valentines continued to be exchanged on an even greater scale. This early 20th century example shows a more light-hearted image, with no hint of the “sacred vows” of the earlier example. Today, nowhere is the Valentine’s Day custom more alive than in the elementary school classroom. Hannah Montana, Spiderman, and Sponge Bob all help our children to tell their friends how important they are and how they will always get along. right: Mid 19th-century lithographed valentine. NYSHA Library Special Collections. left: Early 20th century “stand up” valentine. NYSHA Library Special Collections.

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