Valentine’s Day, steeped in multiple legends and traditions, leaves many wondering why people give cards, letters and gifts on this holiday in the middle of February.
The namesake of Valentine’s Day stems from the Catholic patron saint, St. Valentine, who was martyred during the reign of Roman Emperor Claudius II. Valentine, who was a priest during the third century, deified Claudius’ decree that single men should not marry but become soldiers instead. Valentine would perform marriages in secret for young lovers, which went against the emperor’s orders. Valentine was later executed for his actions.
Another legend contends that St. Valentine was a prisoner for helping Christians escape harsh Roman prisons at the time. According to the online editors of History.com, Valentine, a prisoner, would write love letters to a young girl, possibly the jailer’s daughter, who would often visit him in secret. Every love letter he wrote would always be signed, “From your Valentine.” This is known today for how the signing of cards and love letters came about as the popularity of the patron saint continued into the Middle Ages in England and France.
Another legend states that the holiday started because of the Pagan fertility festival, Lupercalia, held sometime in the middle of February, typically on Feb. 15, not Feb. 14. On this day, Pagans would sacrifice a dog (for purification) and a goat (for fertility). They would use the goat’s hide and sacrificial blood because it was believed to bring women fertility for the year. After this, the young women put their names on an urn and eligible bachelors would pick a name from the urn. The newly paired couple would get married to the person who chose them on this day. In efforts to Christianize the Pagan festival, the Catholic church placed St. Valentine’s feast day in the middle of February. The tradition we have today is a result of the change.
By the end of the fifth century, Feb. 14 became Valentine’s Day when Pope Gelasius declared it. Years later the day became about romance. In England and France, it was believed that Feb. 14 was the beginning of the birds’ mating season, so Valentine’s Day should be about romance. A famous poet, Geoffery Chaucer, was the first person to have written a poem, “Parliament of Foules,” claiming the day as a romantic holiday in 1375, according to History.com.
While the first Valentine greetings were popular in the Middle Ages, the common exchange of gifts and other small items of affection did not become common until the 18th century. Printed cards did not come about until 1900; they were only handwritten letters before then. Esther A. Howland did not start the mass production of valentines until the 1840s. She is known as the mother of the Valentine and started her business of making Valentine cards across America with the New England Valentine Co. Each year, 145 million Valentine’s Day cards are sent; it is the second-largest card-sending holiday next to Christmas.