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The History of St. Valentine’s Day
Many flowers, cards and gifts will be exchanged between loved ones around the world on February 14, as Saint Valentine’s Day is celebrated.
However, the story of why we celebrate this day is a bit of a mystery.
The tradition of St. Valentine’s Day combines elements of both ancient Roman rites and Christian traditions. Just to confuse matters further, the Catholic Church recognizes three different saints named Valentine.
A legend has it that Valentine was a priest in Rome in the third century. Emperor Claudius II decreed that marriage was illegal for young men, as he felt that single men made better soldiers than married ones with families.
Valentine found this decree unfair and unjust and defied the emperor by arranging secret marriages for the young lovers. When his actions for secret lovers were discovered, Claudius ordered Valentine’s execution. Variations on this legend say that Valentine was killed for trying to help Christians escape from harsh Roman prisons where they were often tortured.
According to another legend, Valentine may have sent himself the first ‘Valentine’ greeting in 270 AD, the day before he was executed for refusing to renounce his Christian beliefs. He allegedly sent his jailer’s blind daughter a note of appreciation for bringing food and sending messages while in prison, signed “From Your Valentine.
We can never be sure of the true origins of the Saint Valentine legend, but one thing is certain, it must have been a fascinating and enduring story because by the Middle Ages Valentine had become one of the most popular saints in France. and Britain.
The timing of his saint’s day may have been inspired by the commonplace practice of trying to integrate earlier pagan festivals into the Christian calendar. In this case, the Lupercalia festival.
In ancient Rome, February was considered the beginning of spring and a time of purification. Houses were ritually cleaned by sweeping and then sprinkling salt and wheat throughout the interior (we still refer to spring cleaning today).
The Lupercalia, which began on the ‘Ides (15) February’, was a fertility festival dedicated to the agricultural god Luparcus and the goddess of love, Juno, as well as the Roman founders Romulus and Remus. Roman virgins placed their names in urns set up in public squares, and young single men drew from them to obtain a ‘blind date’ for the coming year. More often than not, these annual matches often ended in marriage.
Saint Valentine’s Day was set on February 14 by Pope Gelasius around 500 AD. By this time, the ‘lottery’ system for romantic dating was considered unchristian and was illegal. In the Middle Ages, love lotteries were practiced as ‘chance boxes’. In France, the drawings in the box give couples a year to marry or part. In England, it was common practice for men to wear a girl’s name drawn from a chance box on their sleeve, surrounded by a heart.
Also at this time, in parts of England and France it was commonly believed that February 14th was the beginning of the mating season for birds, giving rise to the notion that Valentine’s Day was supposed to be a day of romance.
Valentine messages appeared as early as the fifteenth century, and even in this early period they were often given anonymously, perhaps echoing the anonymous recipients of Roman lotteries.
The earliest surviving valentine was a poem written by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London after being captured at the Battle of Agincourt. The greeting, written in 1415, is part of the manuscript collection of the British Library in London.
In the United Kingdom, St. Valentine’s Day became a popular celebration around 1600. The familiar verse, “Roses are red, violets are blue,” debuted sometime in the seventeenth century, and continued to catch on. By the 1850s, it was common for lovers of all social strata to give small gifts or handwritten letters to their loved ones. Around the same time, in France, people began decorating their Valentines with ribbons and lace.
In the early twentieth century, handwritten letters gave way to cards as advances in printing technology improved the quality of printed cards. At the time, people were culturally discouraged from expressing their feelings in direct ways such as letters, so printed cards were a more acceptable method. More affordable postage costs and increased use of the postal system may have led to the rise in popularity of Valentine cards.
Americans first began exchanging handmade Valentines with verses in the early 1700s. In the mid-nineteenth century, the first mass-produced valentines went on sale in America. Miss Esther Howland, an artist and entrepreneur, became the first regular publisher of Valentines in the USA. Often referred to as the ‘Mother of Valentine’, Miss Howland designed many elaborate creations using lace, ribbon and colorful motifs known as “scrap”. Her cards usually cost between $5 – $10, some as high as $35, incredibly expensive for the time.
The Greeting Card Association estimates that if we include Valentines in the children’s classroom, more than a billion Valentine cards will be opened this year. St. Valentine’s Day is the second largest card sending time of the year, accounting for 25% of all seasonal card sales (Christmas accounts for 60%).
It’s estimated that women buy 80 percent of all Valentine’s cards, which means that a large portion of men either forget or aren’t very romantic when it comes to changing! Valentine’s Day is celebrated in the USA, Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, France and Australia, and is growing in popularity in many other parts of the world.
Facts About Valentine’s Day Cards (from the Greeting Card Association)
Approximately 25% of personalized Valentine cards are humorous, with adults 35 and younger most likely to send humorous cards. Valentine’s Day is the biggest e-card sending occasion of the year. An estimated 14 million e-Valentines will be sent in 2008. A greeting card is traditionally the most popular Valentine’s Day gift in the US, ahead of chocolates, flowers or dinner. American men may be more serious about Valentine’s Day than women. In a 2007 national survey for GCA, 45% of women said they give their boyfriends a humorous Valentine, compared to only 34% of men. The percentage of exchanging personal valentines via mail is roughly 50-50 compared to hand delivery. Red is the most popular color choice for Valentine’s cards, followed by pink and then white. Hearts, roses, cupids and lace are traditional Valentine card icons.
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