My earliest memories of Valentine’s Day are bittersweet.
It was third or fourth grade at Church Street School and cards and candy were all the rage. Remember “Be My Valentine?” and multicolored candy hearts in that little box? Mothers purchased bags containing a couple dozen cards so we could send a valentine to each of the kids in class. I recall sending a special one (the nickel variety) to my first “crush” - Judith - and when she didn’t reciprocate, I was crushed - the bitter in the sweet. The accompanying heartache did serve a purpose by preparing me for the countless times to come when I got shot down. The picture of Cupid’s arrow piercing a heart (symbolizing rejection) had real meaning for me that year.
But alas, a box of candy hearts helped ease my heartache; the sweet in the bitter.
As with Christmas, I always wondered about the origins of St. Valentine’s Day and its traditions. Over time I learned that according to legend the holiday began in 496 when Pope Galasius declared Feb. 14 to be St. Valentine’s Day in honor of a Third Century martyred bishop named, that’s right, Valentine. He had defied an imperial decree by secretly conducting marriages between young people in love. Prior to his beheading, he purportedly fell in love with the jailer’s daughter, and on the day of his execution passed her a note which read: “from your Valentine.” The rest is history.
Among the holiday’s many traditions, I was particularly interested in the one involving the exchanging of cards. After researching the topic, I found that:
• The first written greeting allegedly transpired in 1477 in merry ole England when Margery Brews sent an epistle to John Paston describing him as “my right well-loved Valentine.”
• By the 1700’s, notes with a special verse or religious saying written on pretty paper were commonly exchanged.
• By the mid-1800’s, cheaper postal rates resulted in the marketing of Valentine’s cards, many religious in nature (in deference to the Saint). Also during this period, the tradition of young men pinning to their sleeves strips of paper bearing their girlfriends’ names came into vogue. Ever hear of the expression “ wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve?”
• By 1900, improved printing methods allowed manufacturers to flood the market with ready made cards leading to today when an estimated 190 million will be purchased to the tune of one billion big ones (Greeting Card Association).
Also as with Christmas, the original meaning of St. V’s Day has been commercialized to death. The once simple celebration of romantic love and friendship has become a c.$4.5 billion industry featuring teddy bears and chocolates, jewelry and dinners, and, of course, roses (the favorite flower of Venus, goddess of love; c. 200 million sold annually). All of the above to the eternal glee ( ca-ching-ca-ching) of Hallmark, Russell Stover, restaurants and the Society of American Florists.
Mirroring Christmas as well, the holiday has a rich tradition of stories. One of my favorites is “Jeffrey and the Red Paper Heart,” the tale of how a young farm boy’s dream resulted in one of the most popular Valentine’s Day gifts from children to their mothers. And as we observe the centennial of our involvement in World War I, I’m reminded of another.
On Valentine’s Day 1918, just prior to disembarking for the killing fields of France, a young soldier gave his fiancé a necklace consisting of half of a red metal heart. On its back side was etched his name. He wore the piece of jewelry’s other half with her name represented. The gift, worn over their hearts, was to be a reminder of their love and devotion to each other. While her beau was off fighting, she put her nursing skills to good use by going to work at a military hospital in New York City.
Around the Fourth of July he was critically wounded while charging out of a trench onto no-man’s land in northern France. Captured by the Germans, he spent months convalescing in a POW hospital. Following Armistice Day he was part of the prisoner-of-war exchange. After boarding a hospital ship home, he was assigned to a ward in a military hospital in the city. He remained in bad shape, his face swathed in bandages. Suffering from a traumatic brain injury, he was unable to remember anything about himself or his past. Doctors were confident that his facial wounds would heal, but were of the belief that it’d take an emotional catharsis to restore his memory.
On Valentine’s Day 1919, a newly assigned nurse began to help him change his clothes. Suddenly, she could be heard screaming, “Robert!” While removing his pajama top, she saw it. A broken half of a red metal heart hanging from a chain around his neck. She removed hers and placed it beside his-the heart was no longer broken. “Mary Grace,” whispered the wounded doughboy. Mary Grace - the name inscribed on his half heart.
The catharsis the physicians had hoped for had occurred. A few months later he was released. On a sun-kissed late September day amid flaming maples and yellow birches in upstate New York, Robert and Mary Grace were married. Inside their new home, on the living room wall behind a glass frame, was the red metal heart cracked down the middle. Today the home is owned by their grandson and the treasured family icon remains on display – a reminder to his extended family and us that beneath its many trappings, Valentine’s Day is after all simply a time to bask in the unmitigated glory of relationships born of romantic love and friendship.
Besides, saying “I love you” to that special person means a lot more and costs a lot less. Happy Valentine’s Day.
Ray Lenarcic is a retired history professor at Herkimer County Community College. He lives in East Herkimer.