Valentine’s Day is usually associated with roses, the color red, chocolate, cards, heart shapes, and their associated symbol – love.
But little verifiable facts are known about the history behind Valentine’s Day and its namesake. “Somewhere along the way, Valentine’s Day came to represent romance,” according to americaslibrary.gov.
“Saint Valentine” started the celebration of love that falls every February. Valentine, however, might refer to more than one person. According to history.com, the Catholic Church recognizes no less than three saints named Valentine. Church officials martyred each of them.
One legend suggests Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome. At that time, Emperor Claudius II decided that single men were better soldiers than those married and with families. Therefore, Claudius forbade marriage for young men. Valentine refused to obey Claudius’ decree; he continued performing marriages in secret, but was caught. Claudius sentenced Valentine to death.
Others suggest that Valentine was killed for trying to help Christians escape harsh Roman prisons, where authorities beat and tortured them. “According to history.com an imprisoned Valentine actually sent the first ‘valentine’ greeting himself after he fell in love with a young girl – possibly his jailor’s daughter – who visited him during his confinement. Before his death, it is alleged that he wrote her a letter signed “From your Valentine.”
Legends may differ, but the stories share at least one commonality: they stress Valentine’s appeal as a sympathetic, heroic and most importantly romantic figure. According to history.com “By the Middle Ages, Valentine would become one of the most popular saints in England and France.”
Why is love in the air in February, as opposed to the other 11 months? It depends who you ask. Some maintain Valentine’s Day falls in mid-February to commemorate the anniversary of Valentine’s death or burial, which likely took place about the year 270 A.D. Others believe the celebration falls in the middle of February to “Christianize” the pagan celebration of Lupercalia. This was a fertility festival to honor Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture. The festival was also dedicated to the Roman founders Romulus and Remus.
During the beginning of Christianity’s rise, Lupercalia continued, but was deemed “un-Christian” by the end of the fifth century. That is when Pope Gelasius declared February 14 Valentine’s Day. But the celebration wouldn’t become synonymous with love until the Middle Ages. During that time period, the French and English generally believed February 14 was the start of birds’ mating season. This reinforced the idea that the day should be set aside for romance.
It wasn’t until after 1400 that written Valentines began to appear. The oldest known valentine still exists in the form of a poem penned in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orléans. The letter was intended for his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London after his capture at a battle. Americans likely started exchanging hand-made valentines during the early 1700s.
During the 1840s, Esther A. Howland began selling the first mass-produced valentines in America. She became known as the “Mother of the Valentine” and made “elaborate creations with real lace, ribbons and colorful pictures known as ‘scrap.”
According to the Greeting Card Association, Americans send roughly one billion Valentine’s Day cards each year. That makes the celebration the second largest card-sending holiday of the year behind only Christmas, when about 2.6 billion cards are sent.