A Brief History of Valentines Day

St. Valentines Day is known around the world as a day for lovers. We buy valentine gifts, write love poems, and generally express our affection for our significant others. When you look at the greeting card aisle, with all the innocuous pink hearts and red paper, and you see the chocolate candies and red roses, it is difficult to imagine that this holiday has its roots in a bloody festival and a violent murder. However that is indeed the case of St. Valentine Day.

Actually, two modern holidays, Mardi Gras and St. Valentine Day, have their roots in the same ancient festival originally celebrated by the Romans. Valentine Day began as the Lupercalia, a festival celebrated on February 15. The festival involved sacrifices and striking women with bloody pieces of animal skin (a tradition that is honored when people throw beads at women during the Mardi Gras parade), but it was also the one day of the year when teenage boys and girls were allowed to mingle with each other. The night before the festival, the names of all the girls were written on pieces of paper. The papers were then placed in a jar and a boy would randomly select the name of a girl. Those two were allowed to hang-out together during the festival and throughout the entire year. As anyone can well imagine many of the young couples fell in love and would marry each other over the next year.

That is not all there is to the history of St. Valentine Day, however. History tells us that St. Valentine was a real person. Valentine lived in the Roman Empire under Emperor Claudius II. Claudius II was known for getting his empire involved in bloody and unpopular campaigns. As a result, he had difficulty maintaining the number of people in his army. Claudius II believed that part of the reason why young men did not want to join the army is because they did not wish to leave their new wives at home and risk not coming home. He came up with a plan to get more men to join the military. He cancelled all engagements and would not allow anyone in the empire to get married, he thought if young men could not get married that they would be more likely to join the army and fight his unpopular wars. Valentine, along with another priest, Marius (St. Marius), thought this was wrong and they continued to marry people in secret. Both men were eventually found out and were sentenced to death. Valentine was killed on February 14, in about 270 A.D. As an aside, it is a legend that Valentine left a farewell note to his jailer's daughter, whom he had become friends with, and signed it, 'From your Valentine.' This may have inspired the practice of sending valentines and love notes to loved ones.

Over the next few hundred years, as Christianity became more and more dominant and the Roman Empire fell, Christians co-opted the holidays of the Romans and made them their own. The day for lovers and fertility became February 14, the day that Valentine died, instead of the traditional day of the Lupercalia on February 15. The sacrifices ended, but people continued to express affection for each other. Young boys and girls were no longer matched up via pieces of paper, but it is still a day for young people to send secret valentines to people they would otherwise be too shy to approach.

During the fifteenth century, St Valentine’s Day became a holiday associated with romance. In England and France in the Middle Ages, February was considered the month that birds mated; this too lends to the notion of February 14th being the day for lovers. In 1415, Charles, a Duke of Orleans sent his wife a Valentine Greeting while he was locked away in the Tower of London; this is the oldest Valentine greeting known to date. A few years later, John Lydgate was hired by King Henry V to write a Valentine greeting for his love Catherine of Valois. In England, the holiday has been continuously celebrated since the seventeenth century. In the eighteen century, lovers and friends would commonly share handwritten greetings or tokens of affection. In the late eighteenth century, printed cards were shared, and by the 1840s, Valentine cards were in mass production; the first to mass-produce the greetings in the United States was Esther A. Howland.

For adults in countries that celebrate the holiday, more people become engaged on St. Valentine Day than on any other single day of the year. Although the history of Valentine day is bloody, these days it is all about love. Nearly one billion cards are sent annually. Eighty-five percent of all Valentine greeting cards are bought by females. This holiday is celebrated in Australia, France, the United Kingdom, Mexico, and Canada, despite the broken connection to any religious connotations the holiday once had.

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