Roses are Red, Violets are Blue

By Aileen Marshall

Esther_Howland_1850Valentine’s Day, also known as Saint Valentine’s Day, is celebrated on February 14. It is the day that couples customarily show their love for one another. People give their loved ones cards, flowers (usually roses), candy (usually chocolate), or a romantic dinner. If you are well off, you may get or receive jewelry as your Valentine’s Day gift. It is a traditional holiday, but not a government holiday, so businesses are still open.

Valentine’s Day was originally known as Saint Valentine’s Day. It was a feast day in several Christian churches. Yet, the origin of the saint is murky. There were at least three different Saint Valentines, and not much is definitely known about any of them. The two legends seem to have melded to make up the origin of the holiday tradition. One was the Bishop of Terni, in Italy, who died around the year 270. The other was also a Roman priest, who was executed in 496. The legend says that Roman Emperor Claudius II felt that married men were too distracted to make good soldiers, so he outlawed marriage for them. Valentine performed marriages for them in secret. He was jailed and sentenced to death for this crime. While he was incarcerated, he supposedly healed the blind daughter of his jailer. On the night before his execution, he sent her a letter, signed “Your Valentine.” This is how the association of Saint Valentine and romantic love began. Interestingly, some Saint Valentines are also considered the patron saints of beekeepers and epilepsy.

Some sources say that the church naming Saint Valentine’s Day was an attempt to Christianize the pagan festival of Lupercalia, an ancient Roman festival of fertility, celebrated around February 15. Besides slapping the hide of a freshly slaughtered goat on young women of the city to ensure fertility, the single women would put their names in an urn, and the single men would pick a name to be paired off with for that year.

The first written reference to a celebration of Valentine’s Day comes from the old English poet Chaucer. This poem, “Parlement of Foules,” was written in 1382 to commemorate the engagement of King Richard II to Anne of Bohemia. There is a line that translates to “For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.” Mid to late February was also known in Europe as the time when birds would start to mate.

One of the earliest written valentines was by Charles, Duke of Orleans, in 1415. He was captured during the battle of Agincourt and imprisoned in the Tower of London for twenty five years. While there, he wrote many poems to his wife. One of which contains the line “I am already sick of love, My very gentle Valentine.”

The iconic line “roses are red, violets are blue” appeared in 1590 in Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queen:” “She bath’d with roses red, and violets blew, And all the sweetest flowres, that in the forrest grew.” In 1784, a collection of nursery rhymes was published in England, “Gammer Gurton’s Garland,” with the poem:

“The rose is red, the violet’s blue,

The honey’s sweet, and so are you.

Thou art my love and I am thine;

I drew thee to my Valentine:

The lot was cast and then I drew,

And Fortune said it shou’d be you.”

Mass-produced greeting cards for Valentine’s Day started in England in the late 1700s, which was also a time when postage became more affordable there. Valentine’s Day cards were first made in the U.S. by Esther Howland in 1847. She imported paper lace and ribbons from Europe to incorporate in her cards. She is known as the “Mother of the Valentine.”

Valentine’s Day is celebrated in various countries throughout the world in different forms. In most European nations, the practice is similar to here. In Finland and Estonia, February 14 is known as Friends Day. The practice there is to remember all your friends, not just romantic partners. In Wales, people celebrate St. Dwynwen’s Day, the patron saint of Welsh lovers, on January 25.

In many Latin American countries, Valentine’s Day is known as the Day of Love and Friendship. People will carry out some show of gratitude for their friends. Valentine’s Day is not celebrated in Brazil, since it often falls during Carnival. There they celebrate Saint Anthony’s Day on June 12 as a romantic holiday.

In some Asian countries, Valentine’s Day has been taken up due to the exposure to Western culture through the media. In China, Valentine’s Day is often not celebrated, since it falls close to Asian New Year, but they celebrate on the seventh day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar. It is the day when a legendary cow herder and maid were allowed to be together. Japanese and Korean women are expected to give chocolates to their co-workers. Then on March 14, men are expected to reciprocate with white chocolate or marshmallows, known as White Day.

In India, public displays of affection were socially taboo. This began to change in the 1990s when Valentine’s Day and American media became more popular. There are still some that criticize those who celebrate the holiday as being contaminated by capitalism and Western culture. It is also often disapproved and banned in many Muslim majority countries. It is seen as a holiday of Christian origin and thus against Islamic culture. In Iran, they banned the production and sale of any item emblazoned with hearts or red roses in 2011. In Malaysia, they raid hotels and arrest any couple suspected of having sex and hand out flyers in colleges warning students against Valentine’s Day. In Saudi Arabia, the sale of Valentine’s Day items have been banned since 2002. Police have removed red items from stores and red flowers from flower shops.

This Valentine’s Day, enjoy taking the opportunity to show your gratitude for your loved ones, significant or otherwise.