Valentine's Day: A History

Valentine's Day. Most either love it or hate it. However, regardless of one's stance, it is undeniably a holiday rich in historical mystery. We know very little about Saint Valentine, possibly because the Catholic Church recognizes three separate Saint Valentine's, all of whom were martyred, and the lines between them are very murky.

One possible legend is that Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome, specifically during the time when Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families. He subsequently outlawed marriage for young men, much to the dismay of Valentine. He defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret, until he was discovered and put to death.

Another possible legend suggests that an imprisoned Valentine sent the first “valentine” greeting himself after he fell in love with a young girl who visited him during his confinement. It is alleged that, before his death he wrote her a letter signed “From your Valentine,” an expression that is quintessential of Valentine's Day today .

Although no one is certain of the validity of these legends, the stories emphasize Valentine's appeal as a sympathetic heroic and romantic figure. By the Middle Ages, perhaps thanks to this reputation, Valentine would become one of the most popular saints in England and France.

While some believe that Valentine’s Day is celebrated in the middle of February to commemorate the anniversary of Valentine’s death, others claim that the Christian church may have decided to place St. Valentine’s feast day in the middle of February in an effort to “Christianize” the pagan celebration of Lupercalia. Celebrated at the ides of February, or February 15, Lupercalia was a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, as well as to the Roman founders Romulus and Remus.

Lupercalia survived the initial rise of Christianity and but was outlawed due to being deemed “un-Christian” at the end of the 5th century. It was then that Pope Gelasius declared February 14th to be St. Valentine’s Day. It was not until much later that the day became definitively associated with love, as during the Middle Ages, it was commonly believed that February 14 was the beginning of birds’ mating season. This added to the idea that the middle of Valentine’s Day should be a day for romance.

Written Valentine's first made an appearance back in 1400 and by the middle of the 18th century, people were exchanging small tokens of affection with lovers and friends. By 1900, printed cards replaced written ones as a means by which to express affection both quickly and without intimate personalization. Today, according to the Greeting Card Association, an estimated 1 billion Valentine’s Day cards are sent each year, making Valentine’s Day the second largest card-sending holiday of the year, as Christmas is the first.

Whatever your opinion of the holiday, I hope you appreciate its evolution as well as the history behind it.

Happy Valentine's Day, Carroll!


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