A Look Back: Valentine's Day

A Journey Through the Centuries and Valentine Traditions

Valentine's Day, celebrated on February 14th each year, is a day dedicated to love, affection, and the expression of heartfelt emotions. While the modern-day celebration often involves the exchange of cards, flowers, chocolates, and gifts, the origins of Valentine's Day are rooted in a rich history that spans centuries. Let's take a journey through time to explore the often captivating and sometimes elusive history of Valentine's Day.

Ancient Roman Beginnings:

The origins of Valentine's Day can be traced back to ancient Rome, where the festival of Lupercalia was celebrated in mid-February. This pagan festival honored the Roman god Lupercus, God of fertility and protector of shepherds and their flocks. This festival included rituals to ensure health and fertility. As Christianity began to spread, the church sought to Christianize pagan festivals, and Lupercalia eventually gave way to the celebration of St. Valentine's Day.

The Mystery of St. Valentine:

The true identity of St. Valentine remains shrouded in mystery, as there were multiple Christian martyrs named Valentine in the early days of the church. One popular legend suggests that St. Valentine was a priest in Rome during the rule of Emperor Claudius II. The emperor, believing that single men made better soldiers, outlawed marriage for young men. Defying this decree, St. Valentine continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. Eventually, he was discovered, arrested, and executed on February 14th.

Another legend speaks of St. Valentine's kindness and compassion, as he reportedly healed the jailer's blind daughter while imprisoned. On the day of his execution, he left her a note signed "from your Valentine," thus inspiring the tradition of sending messages of love on Valentine's Day.

Chaucer and the Romantic Connection:

While St. Valentine's Day was associated with love and romance, it wasn't until the Middle Ages that the connection between the day and romantic love became more prominent. The 14th century English poet Geoffrey Chaucer played a crucial role in romanticizing Valentine's Day with his poem "Parliament of Fowls," which linked Valentine’s Day with the mating season of birds. While birds may seem like an unlikely animal to inspire romance, Chaucer’s poem is one of the first known references to tie romantic love with Valentine’s Day.

By the 17th century, exchanging tokens of affection, such as love notes and small gifts, became a common practice among lovers on Valentine's Day. The first known written Valentine's cards appeared in the 18th century, these cards were handmade decorated pieces of paper, however as their popularity grew steadily throughout the following centuries and technology advanced, these cards became mass produced and readily available. 

Commercialization and Modern Celebrations:

The 19th century witnessed the mass production of Valentine's Day cards, and the celebration became increasingly commercialized. The introduction of the postage system in the mid-19th century further fueled the exchange of Valentine's greetings.

Today, Valentine's Day is a global celebration of love and affection, marked by the exchange of cards, flowers, chocolates, and romantic gestures. It has evolved beyond its religious and historical roots to become a day dedicated to expressing love in all its forms. Platonic, parental, and romantic, all types of love are celebrated on Valentine’s Day.

While Valentine's Day has come a long way from its ancient Roman origins and the mysterious tales of St. Valentine, it is a day that is still rooted in love. It has transformed into a celebration that goes beyond borders and cultures, celebrated in many countries around the world. As we exchange tokens of affection on February 14th, we should pause and reflect on the rich history that has shaped this day into the romantic and cherished celebration we know today.

Local celebrations throughout history:

That rich history is also right here in our local community. As we delve into the enchanting history of Valentine's Day, it becomes even more captivating when we explore how this celebration of love has evolved in our own community. In McHenry County Valentine's Day celebrations are as old as the towns we call home and offer a unique glimpse into the enduring tradition of expressing affection and devotion.

The love celebrated is not limited to that of romantic couples, there is love shared between parents and children, friends, coworkers and fellow citizens. Just look at the examples found in local newspapers. There are references to St. Valentine’s Day going as far back as the founding days of our local cities and towns. One example is from the Woodstock Sentinel on February 11, 1863, the article recognizes the “buffoonery” of the tradition and reminds locals that “Dr. Stone has lots of [valentines] for sale.” Another reference made on February 16, 1928, in The Herald discusses a group of district 47 teachers who threw a Valentine's Day party for their fellow teachers of district 155. The paper mentions how the “hall was elaborately decorated” and how “bunco and bridge furnished the entertainment for the evening.” 

One article appears in The Herald on February 20, 1908, and discusses a party thrown by a prominent Crystal Lake family, the Hales. The party was deemed quite the successful event as the article read, “Never in the social history of Crystal Lake has there been a prettier or more elaborate observance of St. Valentine’s Day.” The Hale house still stands on Walkup today and one only has to look at the reverent abode to imagine the grand parties once hosted inside its four walls.

With articles ranging from recipes to dinners, potlucks to dances, and advertisements for candies and cards, it is clear that Valentine's Day has been celebrated many ways by past locals. Celebrating Valentine’s Day is not simply a hallmark holiday as it has come to be recognized, but a day rooted in tradition, an ageless celebration, a chosen day to acknowledge our love and affection for those we cherish. 

Although some locations have changed over the years, the traditions remain the same. Take a moment this month to acknowledge the people in your life who bring you joy. Whether it’s the teachers at your child’s school, your coworker who makes sure you have fresh coffee in the morning, your best friend, or your partner in life, February 14th is the day dedicated to celebrating that affection. 

"It becomes even more captivating when we explore how this celebration of love has evolved."

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