Every February, across the country, there is an exchange of candy, flowers, and cards between loved ones, all in the name of St. Valentine. But many may still ask who is this mysterious saint and why do we celebrate this holiday? The history of Valentine’s Day and its patron saint has always been shrouded in mystery. Historical accounts show that February has long been a month of romance. Modern day Valentine’s Day is big business. Surveys show that consumers will spend an average of $77.43 on Valentine’s Day gifts this year. And this does not stop with traditional retailers; e-commerce retailers expect to rack up about $650 million in sales of food, candy, flowers, and other Valentine’s Day gifts. Of that total amount, about $350 million will be for gifts and flowers and another $45 million will be spent on food (including chocolate) and wine.
Yet who was Saint Valentine and how did he become associated with this ancient rite? Today, the Catholic Church recognizes at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom were martyred.
One legend tells us that Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome. When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine was outraged at the injustice of the decree, and set about to defy Claudius by performing marriages for young lovers in secret. When his actions were discovered, an infuriated Claudius ordered that he be put to death.
Other stories suggest that Valentine may have been imprisoned and killed for attempting to help Christians escape harsh Roman prisons where they were often beaten and tortured. The romance surrounding Valentine continues with the next legend where Valentine is credited to have sent the first “valentine” greeting himself. While in prison, it is believed that Valentine fell in love with or healed a young girl (who is thought to have been the jailor’s daughter) who visited him during his confinement. Before his death, it is alleged that he wrote her a final letter, which he signed “From your Valentine,” an expression that is still in use today. Although the truth behind the Valentine legends remains unclear, the stories certainly emphasize his appeal as a sympathetic, heroic, and, most importantly, romantic figure. It’s no surprise that by the middle Ages, in England and France Valentine was one of the most popular saints.
Why is February 14th Valentine’s Day? Valentine’s Day traces its roots back to both Roman and Christian traditions. The ancient Romans honored Juno (the Queen of gods and goddesses as well as the goddess of women and marriage) on February 14 and celebrated the Feast of Lupercalia on February 15th. This feast marked a young man’s rite of passage. The young men would draw names of young girls who would then become their companions for the year. Many believed that this rite foretold of marriage. Other historians found records to indicate that the feast of St. Valentine’s was established by the Catholic Church on February 14th as an attempt against this pagan Roman tradition. Yet other historians state that February 14th was chosen to honor the day St. Valentine died. Like many of the origins of Valentine’s Day we may never know the real reason this date was chosen.
So this holiday that many think is simply something a retailer dreamed up has a long and colorful history. When you are making out your Valentines this year consider this:
Valentines are thought to be the first greeting cards ever sent. Paper valentines date from the 16th century. And most surprisingly today about one billion Valentine’s Day cards are sent each year. So sign those Valentines with love and know that you are part of a long standing tradition!