A long-time Valentines tradition?
The retail of romance
By Leslie Vryenhoek
Heart, flowers, chocolate and lacy cards proclaiming one’s love these are the modern day manifestations of Valentine’s Day. While it may seem to be little more than a merchandising opportunity for purveyors of all things romantic, its origins date back several centuries.
According to Dr. Philip Hiscock in the Folklore Department, a whole constellation of factors have fed into Valentine’s Day traditions over the centuries.
Dr. Hiscock noted the day was named for a third century saint who was jailed for performing marriage ceremonies in opposition to Roman authorities’ wishes. This friend to lovers was put to death on Feb. 14 coincidentally the date Romans believed birds chose their mates and a holiday was born.
The timing was right for other reasons, Dr. Hiscock said. The date fell during the Roman Lupercalian celebrations, which were associated with fertility and sexuality. And for Christians, mid-February usually coincides with Shrove Tide, considered a time of excess leading up to Lent.
“So Valentine’s Day picked up some of the spirit of excess and license from those streams,” Dr. Hiscock explained. “But it’s been thoroughly changed in the last 150-200 years by commerce.”
Dr. Hiscock said many believe the oldest valentine dates back almost 600 years to when the Duke of Orleans, imprisoned in the Tower of London, sent a love letter to his wife in 1415. That missive never made it to its intended recipient, but it sparked the notion of sending romantic thoughts. “By the 19th century, it was clear that there was a market to be had in printing and selling valentines, so we have a nearly 200-year-old tradition of sending cards.”
Dr. Bradley Clissold in the Department of English studies the literary and cultural impact of postcards. He said that postcards became an extremely popular means of personal communication in the late 19th and early 20th century. However, these open cards created a challenge for those wanting to write intensely private messages.
“There are cool examples of people sending romantic messages on postcards, but having to find a way of coding what they actually meant if it was too personal, so the servants wouldn’t know,” Dr. Clissold explained.
Today, the tradition of sending Valentine’s cards is still thriving. In fact, according to Carlton Cards Canada’s website, Valentine’s Day is the second most popular reason, after Christmas, to send one of the 600 million greeting cards Canadians purchase every year. Of course, it isn’t just cards we’re buying. The Retail Council of Canada site lists several merchandise categories from floral to jewelry that account for millions of dollars in Valentine-related sales.
But as Dr. Hiscock attested, the impetus to give gifts on Valentine’s Day is not a new thing, either. For example, a tradition existed right up through the 20th century in both England and Newfoundland’s west coast called ticket night. “Children would draw names of adults the night of February 13. The next day, they would knock on the door of the person whose name they had drawn, and the adult would be obliged to say ‘have you got a ticket for me?’ Then they would give the child a kiss, and provide them with a gift,” Dr.Hiscock explained, adding that there’s a record of similar activity in the diary Englishman Samuel Pepys kept in the 1600s. The tradition came under fire later from the church, which considered it licentious, but it lasted nonetheless, and was still being practiced very recently in some parts of Newfoundland.
In Protestant communities on our east coast, another English tradition involved
gifts. Children marked Valentine’s Day by saying mar faulton (good
morrow) and the greeting’s recipient would then offer a gift providing it
was the first time that they had been so greeted. “There are nice reports from
Trinity Bay and Bonavista of kids getting up very early to knock on doors, so
that they would be the first to say mar faulton,” Dr. Hiscock said.
As with all traditions, people learned and passed on these practices as a way of reinforcing their sense of community. “The expectations are there people buy into ideas because it’s a way of saying ‘that’s what we do,’” Dr. Hiscock explained. “In folklore, we call it maintenance of conformity. It provides a sense that the community is one, and perhaps different from another community with other traditions.”
What has changed in recent years, he says, is that popular, commercial culture and the mass media have “crystallized” our Valentine’s Day traditions and disseminated more homogenous expectations very broadly. “What had been very mobile and changing over centuries is now much more fixed.”
However, the new, narrower and much-hyped romantic expectations surrounding Valentine’s Day aren’t to everyone’s liking.
“There’s a lot of pressure on the day pressure that you have to be with someone, because Valentine’s Day is all about romance,” contended student Lynda Daneliuk. Ms. Daneliuk is president of the Folklore Society, which is hosting an Anti-Valentine’s Mixer to mark the occasion.
“We’ve done this for a few years. Last year we had candy hearts that said things like ‘Love Stinks’ and ‘Buzz Off,’” she revealed. “Because we’re folklorists and our discipline is about studying culture and why people consider it important to do certain things, we decided it would be fun to fly in the face of the Valentine’s expectations.”
So if the trade in romance just isn’t your box of chocolates, consider attending the Anti-Valentine’s Day mixer, open to everyone on campus, on Friday, Feb. 17, from 5-8 p.m. in the Education Building, room 4036.
Then again, if you’re feeling traditional, you could order a Cookie Gram, available from food service venues on campus, for that someone special.