Hi there all you couples and singles out there who are waking up to Valentine’s Day this morning. It’s a holiday you either loathe or look forward to, but it had to come from somewhere, right?
Valentine’s Day is surrounded in legend and mystery; a holiday whose origins are packed with quite a bit of mythology; so much that sometimes it’s hard to find the facts! Well, that’s why I, your friendly neighborhood History Geek, am here today to take you on an adventure. Come on over to my time machine with me, I’ll even bring the truffles, and let’s take a ride on over to Rome during the Third Century A.D. and start off meeting a man named St. Valentine.
The Mystery of Valentine’s Day
Many people may know that a man named St. Valentine was martyred on February 14th in the year 278 A.D. but not much is known about the life of St. Valentine, or even which St. Valentine he was, as he was one of three St. Valentine’s to be martyred, all of whom were martyred on or around February 14th in the third century A.D. Their stories are all similar though; all of them martyred by the same Roman emperor for a similar reason, which leads many to believe that the stories surrounding the martyrdom of the three St. Valentines were just different accounts and claims about the same person. Because of the confusion surrounding his identity, in 1969 the Catholic Church decided to cease liturgical veneration of St. Valentine, however his name is still on the list of official saints.
There have been many saints, and even a pope, that went by the name Valentine, as the Latin word “Valentinus” means worthy. The saint that this day is most likely named after has been officially recognized by the Roman Catholic Church as St. Valentine of Rome.
During the time St. Valentine lived, Rome was ruled by Emperor Claudius II. He was also called Claudius the Cruel and was responsible for leading his powerful armies into committing acts of bloodshed and mayhem. Emperor Claudius, not exactly a man of the people, also decided to ban the institution of marriage, believing that he would have more willing soldiers to fight for his army if they didn’t have a sweetheart.
St. Valentine saw the ban of marriage as unjust, and so in secret, he would unite couples in matrimony. He managed to do this for a few years before Emperor Claudius found out.
When St. Valentine’s betrayal of the emperor was discovered, Emperor Claudius sent some of his officials out to arrest St. Valentine. The terrible emperor sentenced St. Valentine to be beaten within an inch of his life and then beheaded. He put him in prison for a short period of time before his execution, and during this time, St. Valentine had a very small friendly relationship with the jailor’s daughter, who would come to visit and pray with condemned prisoners as they awaited their fate. Legend claims that on the day before his execution, St. Valentine left the jailor’s daughter a letter and signed it “From your Valentine.” This has yet to be proven as true or false. Definitely true though was that St. Valentine was indeed executed on February 14th, and today, the skull of St. Valentine is on a flower-adorned display in Rome, having been found in a tomb during an excavation in the 1800s. Relics that were buried with him were determined to be his, and gave the clue as to his identity. As custom, his skeleton, after being found and identified, was separated to be put on display in reliquaries. Ireland, Scotland, France, England, and the Czech Republic each contain a part of the skeleton of St. Valentine.
Before St. Valentine though was a Pagan festival called Lupercalia. It was celebrated in mid-February and lasted for a few days. The festival celebrated fertility and love. 200 years after the death of St. Valentine, Pope Gelasius declared that the festival Lupercalia was un-Christian and put an end to it. He declared February 14th to be the day to honor St. Valentine instead. Many centuries later though, during the middle ages, St. Valentine’s Day became associated with love. Two poems from the Medieval period may be responsible for this.
In the mid-14th century, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote a poem “Parliament of Foules.” In this tale is a courtly relationship that takes place around the feast of St. Valentine. Chaucer had a knack for presenting his works of fiction as historical fact because his writing style was so believable. After his “Parliament of Foules” became widely popular, especially among the educated, literate elite of the day, people began to associate February 14th as the day to find love, or as Chaucer so eloquently put it, “For this was sent on Seyent Valentyne’s Day, when every foul cometh ther to choose a mate.”
Less than fifty years later, Charles, Duke of Orleans, wrote a love poem to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. This furthered the idea of love poems being written, and even royalty got on board with this rising trend. King Henry V hired poets to compose a Valentine’s Day greeting to Catherine of Valois. Naturally, once it was out that even the royals were writing Valentine’s Day notes, the everyday people who looked up to them followed suit. By the 1600s, Valentine’s greetings and small tokens of affection were being exchanged all over Europe and all classes participated. The tradition carried across the pond when Europeans began to arrive in America.
All of the Valentines were handwritten notes or homemade cards, but then in the 1840s America, a lady by the name of Esther A. Howland, who later became known as ‘The Mother of The Valentine’ saw a unique business opportunity. She began selling mass-produced Valentine’s Day cards that she made herself using ribbons, lace, and bits of colorful paper known as ‘scrap.’ Her cards were the first in the world, and quickly the idea caught on. During the late 1890s and early 1900s, thanks to new technology, mass-produced printed cards replaced the handmade greetings and tripled production because they were printed out by a machine. One hand-drawn illustration could be printed out into several ready-made Valentine’s Day cards.
(Side note: Cupid is a figure often portrayed on Valentine’s Day cards. The mythological Cupid is the son of the jealous goddess Venus, who tried to ruin his marriage to Psyche, a human princess. Their love prevailed and Cupid and Psyche married and had a daughter named Pleasure, who became the apple of Venus’ eye).
Today, Valentine’s Day is the second largest card and gift-giving holiday (and the second most expensive holiday) in the world, next only to Christmas. Over 60% of adults say they celebrate the holiday, over 1 billion cards are sent each year, and the average person spends between $100-$150 on Valentine’s Day for their sweetheart annually.
Oh the things we do for love…
Happy Valentine’s Day!