NOTIONS: A short history and new meaning of Valentine’s Day

Like lots of little baby boomers, I first encountered Valentine’s Day in elementary school. My parents would take me to the dime store or drug store. We’d buy 35 or 40 overly cute cards. Then, using a list provided by my teacher and under Mom’s careful supervision, I’d sign and hand-address one for each classmate. And woe to anyone who excluded even a single soul. We couldn’t, after all, have a little baby boomer feeling unloved.

In seventh grade, I graduated from mass-love mailings when I got paired off with my first girlfriend. During my subsequent boy-meets-girl/boy-falls-for-girl years, I also evolved from overly cute kiddie cards to let-Hallmark-write-’em cards to I’ll-write-my-own cards.

And in recent decades, depending on the state of my relationships and the condition of my credit limit, I’ve progressed from purchasing cards alone to also springing for chocolates, jewelry, roses, romantic getaways and more.

But this year, Valentine’s Day will, quite literally, take the cake.

As in multiple tiers.

As in butter-cream frosting.

As in lock arms and feed the stuff to your significant other.

As in … well, you and the official photographer get the picture.

Which got me to wondering something I’ve never wondered before (and will wager you haven’t either): How did this celebration of love get started? And how did it gain holiday status? And is it, in its commercialized contemporary form, merely a conspiracy of greetingcard companies, florists, chocolatiers, jewelers and FedEx?

Surfing the Web, I learned that the origins of St. Valentine’s Day are about as murky as the history of the term “Hoosier.”

It seems the Romans celebrated something called the Feast of Lupercalia around mid-February. It was dedicated to a god named Lupercus and a goddess of love named Juno. During Lupercalia, someone put an urn in the public square. The local maidens placed their names in the urn. And the local bachelors drew names to determine which maiden’s sexual favors they’d enjoy during the coming year.

As the Christians gained clout, this tale continues, they weren’t too fond of these heathen love lotteries. So in 496, Pope Gelasius changed the name to St. Valentine’s Day and had folks draw the names of saints instead of girls. Then, the lucky winners were to emulate their chosen saint during the coming year.

Seeing no fun in that, the French apparently came up with a Middle Ages compromise in which names were drawn from “chance boxes,” after which the winning couples had one year to get married or part company. It was also during the Middle Ages that Europeans came to believe that birds chose their partners in mid-February. So, in an early variation on the birds and the bees, humans started sending notes of endearment during the same period. Thus, Chaucer wrote in his “Parliament of Fowls,” “For this was on Saint Valentines Day/When every foul comes there to choose his mate.” And the poet John Donne wrote in “An Epithalamion, or Wedding Song”:

Hail Bishop Valentine, whose day this is, All the air is thy Diocese, And all the chirping choristers And other birds are thy parishioners, Thou marryest ever year The lyric Lark, and the grave whispering Dove, The Sparrow that neglects his life for love, The household bird, with the red stomacher; Thou maks’t the black bird speed as soon, As doth the Goldfinch, or the Halcyon;

The husband cock looks out, and straight is sped,

And meets his wife, which brings her feather-bed.

This day more cheerfully than ever shine,

This day, which might enflame thy self, old Valentine.

There are tales, too, of no less than seven Saints Valentine-some jailed, some beheaded, some martyred. With such muddied waters of origin, what’s a good Catholic to do? So in 1969, Pope Paul VI dropped St. Valentine’s Day from the calendar.

No matter. Because the merchandisers were there to pick up the broken hearts. And today, more than 1 billion cards are sent on Valentine’s Day- and countless roses, jewels and chocolates, too.

I’ll draw no random name this Valentine’s Day. I won’t lose my head (at least not literally). And I won’t wax eloquent as Chaucer or Donne.

But when our friend Jennie DeVoe sings “Here Comes The Sun,” and we walk down the stairs, and exchange rings, and promise one another love’s lifetime, my Cherí and I will have canonized our own St. Valentine, the most personal and sacred of all.

Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to

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