Local St. Valentine’s Day happenings in our old times

Pictured is a typical child’s Valentine from February 1947, typical of the type children exchanged in grade school classrooms. I know, because someone gave it to me. (Photo courtesy of Peter Betz)

Since this article almost fell on St. Valentine’s Day, the patron saint of love, greeting card publishers, chocolatiers, and florists, this saintly saint still seems a subject worthy of our attention once a year, even though he wasn’t born and raised in Fulton County, hadn’t any relatives here, and probably wouldn’t ever have authorized the use of his name to sell cards, candies, or flowers if he’d known about it.

There might never have been a St. Valentine’s Day, if Valentine hadn’t been so stubborn. We’re told he was a Christian priest during the reign of Emperor Claudius II, nicknamed Claudius the Cruel, which should have warned Valentine not to make trouble, considering Claudius never favored the Christian idea that it was better to give than to receive. Roman emperors, after all, were a pampered lot and much more accustomed to receiving than giving. Unfortunately, Val and Claude crossed swords in 269 A.D. when the emperor decreed no Romans could marry without his permission. “Balderdash,” or Latin words to that effect, said Valentine, who went right on marrying people. Claudius caught wind of this, probably through a snitch, and had Valentine brought in for a little attitude adjustment. Some historic accounts state Claudius actually took a brief liking to Valentine. Perhaps they sat down together on the Roman forum to whittle, discuss their differences and eat some grapes, but Claudius’s attempt to convince Valentine to obey his no-marriages decree, free grapes or not, proved fruitless. In the end, those grapes must have turned sour and Claudius, just another spoiled Roman C.E.O. unable to handle conflict, shrugged his shoulders and had Valentine executed.

Scholars believe the earliest written mention of St. Valentine’s Day comes from Chaucer, who in 1382 wrote, “For this [event] was on Seynt Volantyny’s Day whan evry byrd (young man) comyth to chese (choose) his make (mate).” Spell check, by the way, hates Middle English. In 1400, a serious “High Court of Love” with legal powers was established in Paris to prosecute cases of cruelty to women. Male judges were selected by influential female aristocrats to make sure they’d become serious judges, and before being appointed, these judge-candidates were required to submit poems in praise of women. These poems were referred to as ‘valentines’. Moreover, the earliest-surviving personal ‘valentine’ was given by the Duke of Orleans to his wife in 1415. We therefore know Valentine’s Day already existed well before 1600, when Shakespeare, writing the play Hamlet, penned, “Tomorrow is St. Valentine’s Day, all in the morning be-time, and I, a maid at your window, will be your valentine.”

Moving way forward, the February 13, 1894 Daily Republican printed a Valentine’s Day editorial, stating, “Store windows are again full of lace-edged love missives ready for purchasing, unless hard times has frozen sentiment, and we think it has not. Children, bless them, always enjoy sending them. These really are hard times, but every young man will buy the prettiest girl he knows a valentine.” “Hard times” references the Panic of 1893, still influential a year later. Notice nothing was mentioned about giving flowers.

Giving flowers as part of Valentine’s Day activities apparently phased in gradually, not beginning until the early 1900s, if we’re to believe the Amsterdam Recorder editor’s remarks of Feb. 13, 1903. He wrote, “There has lately been a growing tendency to accompany the more refined valentine with an assortment of seasonal blooms. Sometimes chocolate candies are even included. Enterprising florists now stock their stores with a splendid array of the finest cut flowers, including roses, daffodils, English violets, sweet peas, and carnations.”

The Feb. 11, 1909 Fulton County Republican observed, “St. Valentine’s Day will be with us next Sunday, and all our youthful swains and bashful young misses are planning for this very special event. Youngsters too, are saving pennies so they may purchase comic valentines. Already the florists have received many orders for flowers to be delivered on that day, and it is expected the sale will be unusually large this year. The annual sale of mementos for St. Valentine’s Day has begun, and our stationers will meet all demands. Manufactured cards for Valentines are among the largest sellers, and the more expensive styles are eagerly snapped up. Delicate prints of blue and pink are the leading colors of higher priced valentines, some as high as five dollars.”

Does Valentine’s Day beat Mother’s Day as florist’s most profitable occasion? Answer no. Several florists I asked agree that while Mother’s Day is a big winner, Valentine’s Day takes the first prize.

Although June weddings have always been popular, weddings have also frequently occurred on Valentine’s Day — perusing our old-time local newspaper wedding announcements confirms this. The Valentine’s Day theme was often also represented in wedding decorations, a typical example being that which occurred on Valentine’s Day 1942, when Miss Mary Smith and Harvey Rackmyer of St. Johnsville were married and “the ceremony was followed by a reception at the home of the bride’s parent’s, decorated tastefully in the St. Valentine’s Day motif.”

And so, thanks to a long-ago power struggle between a stubborn priest and a short-tempered emperor, we can now enjoy a special, annual occasion that promotes a positive mixture of romance and capitalism, generously benefiting both true love and our card, candy, and flower industries. Hopefully, it leads to many happy, lasting relationships as well.

By Patricia Older