Hallmark claims that we exchange 141 million Valentine’s Day cards every year, making Valentine’s Day the second-most popular greeting-card-giving occasion. No doubt Christmas season is the leader. The Valentine’s Day total doesn’t include kids’ valentines for classroom exchanges. That’s a shame because for many of us, that ritual was our first experience with Valentine’s Day. That includes me.
In the world of my childhood, Valentine’s Day loomed large. About a week before Feb. 14, elementary school teachers would set up in their classrooms large cardboard cartons into which students were encouraged to deposit Valentine cards aimed at their classmates. Secret crushes prompted youthful senders to try to mask their identity. Some would pencil a series of numbers, each number representing a a letter in the alphabet so the recipient would have to work a bit to learn the identity of the sender.
By the time Valentine’s Day arrived, the box was full, and we eagerly awaited the time when our teacher would distribute the cards. This became an instant test of one’s social standing. Naturally, the most popular kids received the most cards, and some received far fewer. Occasionally, a kid received none and was left sitting morosely alone to witness the giggles and joyful reactions of the others as they opened their cards. This happened rarely, I’m sure, but I can remember the year that I was that kid. Our teacher put her arm around me sympathetically and spoke quietly, no doubt reminding me that lots of people loved me, especially my parents. In the years following, every kid received at least one or two Valentine cards from secret admirers. We knew that the teacher was the secret sender. Most years, I received a respectable number, about as many as I sent, and that felt good. Being accepted by one’s peers is so important when one is young and under construction. Throughout life really.
Do you remember making valentines with red construction paper, using those small kid scissors with blunt tips to create doilies and paper hearts? Getting sticky library paste all over everything? These days, chocolates, red roses and fancy store-bought cards rule the day. Dinners out, candlelight, wine, maybe some snuggling afterward. A day for lovers.
History.com tells us that Valentine’s Day was outlawed as “un-Christian” at the end of the 5th century, when Pope Gelasius declared February 14 St. Valentine’s Day. It was not until much later that the day became associated with love. During the Middle Ages, it was commonly believed in France and England that February 14 marked the start of birds’ mating season, supporting to the notion that Valentine’s Day should be a day for romance.
Written valentines showed up in the 1400s. The oldest known valentine still around today is a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife.