Valentine's Day comes from Roman times, not Hallmark

  • 11 February 2005
  • test

In 1807 Sir Simon Taylor sent a printed and hand coloured Valentine card to Lady Sophia Fitzgerald. The card depicts Cupid and a female figure, possibly Venus, who holds his quiver of arrows, within a border of floral garlands, hearts and arrows. It is embellished with metallic sequins and carries the verse, "Cease my fond Passion to reprove, for Beauty's force can fetter Love". Handwritten at the top of the card are the words, "Roses Red and Violets Blue, Carnations Sweet and so are You." Inside the card is a further handwritten verse,

"When this you see, remember me.

And keep me in your mind,

Let all the world, say what they will,

Speak of me as you find."

Lady Sophia Fitzgerald, 1762 – 1845, was one of the daughters of the 1st Duke of Leinster and elder sister of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, the celebrated United Irishman. She spent much of her adult life as a companion to her mother, Emily, Duchess of Leinster, and never married.

The celebration of St Valentine's Day as a day for lovers has been followed for centuries. The origins of this date back to Roman times and appear to be a mixture of different customs.

St Valentine was a Christian martyr who defied the Roman Emperor, Claudius II, by performing marriages at a time when both marriages and engagements were banned. Claudius believed that wives and fiancées deterred young men from joining the army. For this transgression Valentine was executed in 269 A.D.

In the 5th century, by which time Christianity was the dominant religion in Europe, Pope Gelasius declared 14 February as the feast of St Valentine.

This day was already the eve of an important pagan festival honouring Juno, goddess of women and marriage. The feast of Lupercalia began each year on 15 February and had been celebr-ated throughout the Roman Empire.

For the duration of this springtime festival young girls and boys, who were usually segregated, would be paired off, whereby each boy would select a slip of paper from a bowl or jar, on which a girl's name had been written. Elements of the pagan festival survived in the celebration of St Valentine's feast day and he became the patron saint of lovers.

During medieval times it was commonly thought that 14 February was the mating day for birds. There were also superstitions relating to young maidens and the first bird they might see on the that day, for instance, spying a gold finch meant marrying a wealthy man, while a flock of doves signified a happy marriage.

The custom of marking this day with the writing of love songs or verses evolved into the sending of valentine cards, which by the end of the 18th century were being commercially produced.

In 1835 Pope Gregory XVI gave some of St Valentine's remains to John Spratt, an Irish Carmelite then preaching in Rome. The relics were brought back to the Whitefriar Street Church in Dublin where they remain to this day in a specially built shrine.

Alex Ward

National Museum of Ireland