Love surely abounded in Colonial America since the population grew quite steadily through the years. But was there an official day set aside for love called Valentine’s Day? The answer is “yes”…and “no.”
While Valentine’s Day had existed for centuries, not all of the colonies celebrated the holiday. The New England colonies were known for avoiding any celebrations they deemed unscriptural, including Christmas. But many of the European immigrants, especially the Dutch, carried the romantic tradition to the New World.
Celebrations of a holiday focused on love go waaaay back in history—all the way to the pagan festivals in Rome. Eventually the celebration became more civilized through the tale of a priest named Valentine, who secretly married lovers who had been banned from matrimony by a military leader. Valentine was subsequently imprisoned. As legend has it, the grateful lovers brought gifts of cards and flowers to the prisoner while he was in his jail cell. Unfortunately, the defender of love was martyred in AD 278. Definitely not a happy day for Valentine.
Some of the ways the Colonial Americans celebrated St. Valentine’s Day were downright peculiar to our modern sensibilities. For instance, in Marriage Customs of the World: From Henna to Honeymoons, by George Monger, he quotes an excerpt from The Connoisseur, a series of essays published from 1754 to 1756 where some interesting Valentine’s Day traditions were described:
“Last Friday was Valentine’s Day and the night before I got five bay leaves, and pinned four of them to the four corners of my pillow and the fifth to the middle; and then if I dreamt of my sweetheart, Betty said we should be married before the year was out. But to make it more sure, I boiled an egg hard and took out the yolk and filled it with salt, and then I went to bed and ate it, shell and all, without speaking or drinking after it. We also wrote our lovers names upon bits of paper and then rolled them up in clay and put them into water, and the first that rose up was to be our valentine.”
Betty must have been a trustworthy authority on love.
There was also a tradition that the first man that a maiden would see on Valentine’s Day would be the one she would marry. This practice undoubtedly caused numerous stubbed toes while girls with tightly-shut eyes waited for the signal from a friend that the one they desired was in close proximity.
While the first known written valentine message was sent in 1684, handwritten notes to celebrate love on February 14 became popular in 1750. The homemade sentiments were replaced by mass-produced cards in the mid nineteenth century.
So you can celebrate Valentine’s Day like the colonials with some bay leaves and eggs. But I would prefer a few chocolates myself. And if my valentine wants to make me a handwritten sentiment, I will feel like a blessed colonial woman indeed.
I will end with a quote from Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet:
Tomorrow is St. Valentine’s Day,
All in the morning be-time,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.
Happy Valentine’s Day! May your day be filled with the company of those you love.
Image of rose courtesy of Khumthong via freedigitalphotos.net