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The History of Valentine's Day

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Contrary to what the greeting card stores may lead you to believe, Valentine’s Day did not begin with an arrow-shooting cherub. Instead, the mushy love fest that February the 14th signifies today was brought to life by a combination of 3 things: an ancient ritual, the actual date itself, and a man named Valentine.

History Of Valentine's Day

The date of Valentine’s Day has been important since pre-Christian Rome. According to a famous legend, Rome was founded by two brothers, Romulus and Remus, who were cared for by a she-wolf. To worship the founders of their great city, Romans celebrated them at the festival of Lupercalia, which took place sometime in the middle of February. During said gathering, the men of the city would chase the eligible ladies around, gently slapping them with thongs of goat hide. After this parade, legend has it that the men would pick pieces of paper out of an urn that had a woman’s name on it. This lucky lady was thus paired with the man for a year, a union that often ended in marriage.

But paganism fell with the arrival of Christianity and Lupercalia was outlawed at the end of the 5th century, around the same time that Valentine’s Day was declared. Often times, a new religion would adopt the dates of older holidays to make the transition easier for those who were forced to change beliefs.

In France, it was believed that the 14th of February was the beginning of the bird’s mating season, which made the date pretty romantic and is first documented in a poem by Chaucer. He suggested that this date was romantic “for this was Seynt Valentyne’s Day. When every foul cometh then to choose his mate.” (The spelling of things wasn’t yet standardized, which is why the words look funny.) Some 33 years later, the first Valentine is said to have been written from Duke Charles, who was imprisoned in the Tower of London, to his wife. He wrote, “Je suis déjà d’amour tanne. Mast res douce Valentinee.” (I am already sick with love for you. My very gentle Valentine.)

This brings us to the story of Valentine himself. Who was this romantic guy? Well, there are a few candidates: three different saints named Valentine who existed early enough to be connected with the holiday…and were all martyred.

One of these guys was a priest in 3rd century Rome when Claudius II was emperor. Claudius discovered that men were better soldiers when they weren’t tied down to wives and kids. So, as any wise, heartless tyrant would, Claudius forbade the young men of his empire to marry. Valentine was a loving soul and saw the injustice of this. So, he went behind the emperor’s back and brought young people together in secret. Since you already know he was martyred, you can probably guess the series of events that led up to his death. He was found out, imprisoned, c’est la vie.

Other legends include a Christian-helping Valentine who aided Christ’s people escape imprisonment in Rome and another Valentine who was himself imprisoned. The latter fell in love with a girl, often thought to be the jailor’s daughter, who visited him during his sentence. Before his meeting with death, Valentine is said to have written her a letter signed “from your Valentine,” hence where we got it from.

Nowadays, Valentine’s Day is celebrated all over the world. In Great Britain, it began to gain popularity in the 17th century. A hundred years later, it became common practice for people to exchange small tokens or notes and later still, came the cards.

In America, Ester A. Howland began selling mass-produced Valentines that were made with real lace, ribbons, and colorful scraps. Again, that was a long time ago – back in the 1700s – and today, we too opt for printed cards. Next to Christmas, Valentine’s Day is the second most popular holiday to send cards, totaling about 1 billion world-wide annually.

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