Cards, gifts, candy, flowers, dinner, wine, jewelry, romance, love – that's what Valentine's Day is all about, right? Well, it hasn't always been that way, and may not really be now, at bottom. The fact is . . . Valentine's Day has its ancient origins in debauchery and blood moving toward sappy sentimentalism in the Middle Ages and Renaissance and beyond to today's crass commercialism. But you just may be able to capture the true spirit of Valentine's Day with the sweet and tender Portuguese tradition of sweetheart handkerchiefs.
ancient pagan festival from which Valentine's Day ultimately stemmed
didn't have much to do with chubby winged cupids and candy hearts. It
was, rather, dark, bloody, and filled with debauchery. Although the
exact origin remains hazy in the mists of time, most scholars believe
that it can be traced back to the ancient Roman Lupercalia, "where
men hit on women by, well, hitting them" (NPR).
The feast of Lupercalia was celebrated from February 13 to 15. During this pagan fertility celebration, The men often sacrificed a
a goat and then proceeded to whip the women participants, often
desirable maidens, with the hides of the sacrificed animals as a way to
enhance their fertility. The young women lined up to receive their
hide whippings because they desired fertility. The romantic Roman
whippers, according to University of Colorado at Boulder historian Noel
Lenski, were usually drunk and naked.
romantic Roman fertility party usually included a kind of matchmaking
lottery. The young men would draw names of the young women from a
jar, and then each couple thus paired up would couple "for the
duration of the festival – or longer, if the match was right"
along came a couple of martyrdoms and Christian attempts to
appropriate and baptize this holiday. Under Emperor Claudius II, two
men named Valentine were executed on February 14, but in different
years in the third century. The Church honored these martyrs and
established a feast day – St. Valentines Day.
then in the fifth century Pope Gelasius I muddied the waters by
combining St. Valentine's Day with Lupercalia to appropriate and
Christianize the pagan festival. Lupercalia then became more of a
theatrical interpretation of what it had once been, with less
drunkenness and more clothes worn. Still, St. Valentine's
Day/Lupercalia remained a time to celebrate love and fertility.
Toward the Middle Ages and Renaissance
As time wore on, the holiday
grew sweeter, moving away from fertility to an emphasis on romance.
Both Chaucer and Shakespeare romanticized the day in their works, and
as a result, it grew in popularity in Britain and throughout the rest
of Europe. During the Middle Ages, handmade paper cards became the
favored Valentine's tokens.
As the Middle Ages resolved
into the Renaissance, the Lupercalian tradition of drawing names saw
a recrudescence. Boys and girls drew names and were "supposed to
devote themselves to the person they drew for the day. If a boy and a
girl mutually drew each other's names, that was considered an omen
that they would marry. There was also a belief that the first person
of the opposite you saw on Valentine' Day would become your valentine
(excluding family members!)" (L.M.
Giving Valentine's gifts was a
prominent aspect of
the holiday at this time as well, just as it is today. "No
matter how you picked your Valentine day partner, you were expected
to present him or her with a token: a piece of jewelry, gloves,
sweets, or something shaped like a heart or the Valentine partner’s
initial. Men often gave their ladies a heart-shaped emblem she could
wear on her sleeve—which is where we got the colloquialism 'wearing
your heart on your sleeve'"
these Valentine traditions made their way to the New World and took
on slightly altered but still recognizable forms. With the advent of
the Industrial Revolution, factory-made cards became big as
Valentine's tokens. It was in 1913 that Hallmark Cards began the mass
production the kind of Valentine's cards that we know today.
Valentine's Day is big business, which has spoiled it for many . . .
Day in 2019 looks very different than it did a decade ago. Ten years
ago, more than 60 percent of adults planned to celebrate Valentine's
Day; today, that's dropped to just over half. At the same time,
spending for the holiday has continued to rise and is projected to
reach more than $20 billion this year"
the numbers of people celebrating Valentine's Day are declining,
those who do participate are spending more – but the emphasis is
shifting. "Between 2009 and 2019, the average amount consumers
planned to spend on Valentine's Day gifts increased by $60. While
gifts for a significant other are still an important part of the
holiday, much of the increase is being driven by gifts for other
loved ones. Today, Valentine's Day is about sharing the love with
everyone – from gifts for friends and family to cards for
co-workers and children's classmates and, of course, special treats
for pets. Some of these gifts will take the form of more traditional
items . . . but consumers are also looking to give a special
Let's see, then, how we can turn this around with an old Portuguese tradition – a gift that is at the same time a "special experience."
Sweetheart Handkerchief of Northern Portugal
This old tradition from northern Portugal captures and keeps alive what we think of as the true spirit of Valentine's Day. It is the
tradition of sweetheart or fiance handkerchiefs, in Portuguese lencos de pedidos or lencos dos namorados, which reached its peak in popularity in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These tokens of love and affection first became popular among the nobility and were later adopted by the general population. They later became loosely associated with Valentine's Day.
were specially embroidered cotton or linen handkerchiefs given by
young single women to their sweethearts, usually when the young men
went off to sea or to war in the former colonies. The handkerchiefs,
as pledges of love, were embroidered with coded symbols. For example,
a heart represented love, a lily signified virginity, a pair of doves
symbolized a couple in love, and a red carnation expressed a
provocative, flirtatious message.
in the Minho province of northwestern Portugal, sweetheart
handkerchiefs were first used among the nobility as a kind of
marriage proposal. Later, after adoption by the general populace, the
scope was broadened, and they became a way to initiate "dating"
and kick off a relationship. Girls learned the art of embroidery at
an early age and later used these skills to show "admiration"
for their sweethearts. The young men thus favored would wear their
handkerchiefs in public as a sign to the world (and other young
ladies) that they were in a committed relationship. The designs and
love-inspired motifs on the handkerchiefs included, of course, birds,
flowers, and hearts, as well as verses from love poems.
Valentine handkerchiefs or request handkerchiefs were, according to
Minho tradition, handkerchiefs that were embroidered with the care
that the beating heart put into the hands of girls at the dating age.
The girl would embroider her handkerchief from a fine linen cloth
made by herself or from a cotton handkerchief purchased at the
market. After the embroidery, the handkerchief would reach the hands
of the selected one, and it was the fact of him wearing it in public
or not that would decide the beginning of the love affair. The
handkerchiefs were associated with happy love stories . . .
overwhelming passions, or simple momentary flares, portrayed in the
polychromatic designs embroidered on the whiteness of the linen"
the tradition and craft of creating sweetheart handkerchiefs has
become more a handicraft rather than a romantic phenomenon. In fact,
there are now committees that oversee the production of such
handkerchiefs. The handkerchiefs, evaluated by a committee, have to
meet strict criteria with respect to size, colors, thread count, and
motifs. Having met the criteria, a handkerchief is certified as an
approved handicraft product.
this is a lovely tradition. And it would be a great way to inject an
element of true romance back into Valentine's Day.
Yours with Custom Printing and Embroidering
If you'd like to get in on the
tradition and the romance of a sweetheart handkerchief for your
Valentine's sweetheart, Wholesale
For Everyone has you covered. We have a great selection of
handkerchiefs, and we offer custom
printing and embroidering.
With our custom 4-color screen
printing and embroidering, you can personalize our designs with your
own text, logo, or image. You can choose from among our stock images
or let us transform your ideas into wearable Valentine's art. Create
your own sweetheart handkerchiefs with our help . . . and step into
an old tradition of true romance.
To discover more, contact