Who The Heck Is St. Valentine, Anyway?

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As we were cutting out paper hearts and sprinkling glitter on my daughter’s Valentine’s Day cards this week, she stopped and asked me why we celebrate this “day of love” each year.  I didn’t have an answer.

What is the history of Valentine’s Day? Who was the fellow we call St. Valentine, and why do we send cards in his honor? After some digging, this is what I discovered:

Who Was St. Valentine?

According to History.com, in 3rd Century Rome, Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, so he outlawed marriage for young males. Valentine, a Roman priest, defied this decree and continued to perform marriages in secret for young lovers. When the Emperor discovered his betrayal, Valentine was put to death on February 14, 278 A.D.

Valentine actually sent the first “valentine” greeting himself. Legend has it that before he was executed, he left a farewell note for the jailer’s daughter, who had become his friend, and signed it “From Your Valentine.”

The Pagan Festival of Lupercalia

In ancient Rome, February 13-15 was celebrated as a pagan fertility festival called Lupercalia. During this time, a young man would draw the name of a young woman in a lottery and keep her as a sexual companion for the year. When Rome became Christian, Pope Gelasius replaced Lupercalia with St. Valentine’s Day. The first Christian Valentine’s Day was celebrated on February 14 in 496 A.D.

Valentine’s Day and Romantic Love

It was a common belief in Europe in the Middle Ages that February 14 was the day when mating birds chose their partners. Thus mid-February became a time dedicated to love, and people observed it by writing love letters and sending small gifts to their beloved.

In 1386 A.D. Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his “Parlement of Foules” (or “Parliament of Fowls”), which is considered to be the first linking of Valentine’s Day to romantic love. Celebrating the engagement of Richard II of England and Anne of Bohemia, Chaucer wrote: “For this was on St. Valentine’s Day/ When every fowl cometh there to choose his mate.”

On Valentine’s Day in 1400, the High Court of Love was opened in Paris to deal with affairs of the heart: marriage contracts, divorces, infidelity, and beaten spouses. In 1415 Charles, the Duke of Orleans, wrote the first recorded Valentine’s note to his beloved, while imprisoned in the Tower of London after his capture in the Battle of Agincourt.

Valentine’s Cards Go Mainstream

In the mid-1700s, the passing of love notes became popular in England, a precursor to the Valentine’s cards that we know today. Early cards were hand made out of paper and lace. In 1797, the Young Man’s Valentine Writer was published, which suggested poems and messages to be used in these cards. As postal services became more affordable, the anonymous Valentine’s Day card became possible.

During the Civil War in the U.S. (1861-65), Valentine cards often depicted sweethearts parting, or a tent with flaps that opened to reveal a soldier. These were known as “windows.” After the war, the “window” depicted a church door opening to reveal a bridge and groom.

In 1840, Esther A. Howland, a student at Mount Holyoke College, mass-produced the first American commercial Valentines. The first year in business brought Howland $5,000.00 in sales (an enormous sum at that time). Larger companies followed her lead almost immediately.  In 1913 Hallmark Cards produced their first Valentine.

Valentine’s Day Becomes a Multi-Billion Dollar Business

Today, the commercialization of the holiday continues. Valentine’s Day generates an estimated $14.7 billion in retail sales in the United States. An estimated 1 billion Valentine’s Day cards will be sent worldwide this year, making it the second most card-heavy celebration after Christmas.

And that, my dear daughter, is why we celebrate this “day of love” each year.

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