Every February 14th, lovers around the world exchange candy, flowers, jewelry and cards on Valentine’s Day (also known as Saint Valentine’s Day or the Feast of Saint Valentine).
Saint Valentine’s Day was an official feast day of the Catholic Church until 1969, but it is not a public holiday in any country. Unfortunately, it was removed as a feast day when the Catholic Church revised its liturgical calendar because the historical origins were disputed. And it’s certainly true, the history of Valentine’s Day, and the story of its patron saint, is a little murky - and a little dark.
It is known that in ancient Rome the festival of Lupercalia, a pagan fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, was celebrated each year between February 13-15th. The Luperci, an order of Roman priests, would gather at the sacred cave where Romulus and Remus (the founders of Rome) were said to have been nurtured by a she-wolf. The priests would sacrifice a goat (for fertility) and a dog (for purification). They would then dip the goat’s hide into the sacrificial blood and return to the city where they would slap women with the hide; it was believed that if slapped, the women would be more fertile in the coming year. The festival included a matchmaking lottery, in which unmarried men drew the names of unmarried women. The pair would then be coupled for the duration of the festival; some of these matches ended in marriage.
In 496, Pope Gelasius I changed this pagan celebration to a Christian feast day and declared February 14th St. Valentine’s Day.
The Catholic Church recognizes at least three different saints named Valentine, all of whom were martyred on February 14th. It is believed that the Valentine that was honored with this feast day was a priest who served around 270. Legend has it that he attracted the displeasure of the Roman Emperor Claudius II. Claudius had prohibited marriage for young men, claiming that single men without wives and families made better soldiers. Valentine defied Claudius and continued to perform marriage ceremonies, and he was sent to jail for his disobedience. While in prison he was said to have performed a miracle by healing Julia, the blind daughter of his jailer Asterius. It is said that Valentine sent the first valentine card; before he was executed, he sent her a letter signed “from your Valentine”, an expression still in use today.
It wasn’t until the 14th century that St. Valentine’s Day became associated with love and romance. The poet Geoffrey Chaucer composed a poem of courtly love in honor of the engagement of England’s Richard II and Anne of Bohemia, linking the royal engagement with the mating season of birds and St. Valentine’s Day (it was commonly believed that February 14th was the beginning of bird mating season).
Valentine greetings were commonly exchanged as far back as the Middle Ages, but written valentines didn’t appear until the 14th century. The oldest known valentine still in existence is a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. The earliest surviving valentine written in English was sent from Margery Brewes to her future husband John Paston in 1477. She referred to him as “my right well-beloved Valentine”.
In Great Britain, Valentine’s Day was popularly celebrated by the 17th century, and by the 18th century gifts of flowers and candy and the exchanging of handmade cards had become common. The Young Man’s Valentine Writer was published in 1797. It contained sentimental verses for those unable to compose their own. Printers began to produce a limited number of printed cards. In the 1850’s Esther Howland, daughter of a book a stationary store operator in Worcester, Massachusetts began mass producing Valentine’s Day cards. By the turn of the 20th century, printed cards began to replace written letters, and less expensive postal rates made the sending of Valentine’s Day cards popular because they could be sent anonymously. In 1913, Hallmark Cards began producing Valentine’s cards. In the 1980’s the diamond industry began to promote Valentine’s Day as an occasion to gift jewelry.
Today, Valentine’s Day is big business. Restaurant reservations need to be made months in advance, jewelry stores double the number of staff in the weeks before the big date, and flower shops valiantly produce arrangements and processed stems by the ton. Over 1 billon cards are exchanged on Valentine’s Day, making it the second most popular card-sending holiday after Christmas. It’s interesting to note that women send 85% of Valentine’s greetings; not limiting their greetings to husbands, but including children and grandchildren as well.
However you decide to celebrate Valentine’s Day, I hope you are surrounded by friends and family - and of course love.