Every February, across the country, candy, flowers, and gifts are exchanged between loved ones, all in the name of St. Valentine, yet many may wonder why? Who is this mysterious saint and why do we celebrate this holiday? The actual history of Valentine’s Day and its patron saint is still shrouded in mystery. Historians do record that February has long been a month of romance. As we know it today, St. Valentine’s Day, contains vestiges of both Christian and ancient Roman tradition. Who was Saint Valentine and how did he become the center of this ancient rite?
One legend recounts that Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome. When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers (and were less trouble) than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine, outraged at the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Emperor Claudius ordered that he be put to death. It is thought that his devoted friends buried him in the church of St. Praxede in the year 270 AD, on the 14th of February. Other stories have suggested that Valentine may have been killed for attempting to help Christians escape harsh Roman prisons where they were often beaten and tortured.
One legend remains the most romantic of them all. The story tells that Valentine actually sent the first “Valentine” greeting himself. It is believed that Valentine while in prison fell in love with a young girl (who may have been his jailor’s daughter) who visited him during his confinement. Before his death, it is alleged that he wrote her a love letter, which he signed “From your Valentine,” an expression that is still in use today. Although the truth behind the Valentine legend may never be known the stories certainly emphasize his appeal as a sympathetic, heroic, and, most importantly, romantic figure.
By the Middle Ages, Valentine was one of the most popular saints in England and France. During the medieval days when chivalry abounded, the names of English maidens and bachelors were put into the box and drawn out in pairs. This was often done on the fourteenth of February since this was considered a good omen for love. Each couple then exchanged gifts. The girl then became the man’s Valentine for that year. He would wear her name on his sleeve and it was his bound duty to attend and protect her. Many believed that it often foretold a wedding.
Historians record that the first modern Valentines date from the early years of the fifteenth century. When the young French Duke of Orleans, was captured at the battle of Agincourt, he was kept a prisoner in the Tower of London for many years. During his captivity he wrote poem after poem to his wife. In all, about sixty of them remain and are considered some of the first modern day Valentines. These can be seen today among the royal papers in the British Museum.
Giving flowers as part of Valentines appears about two hundred years later. This seemed to originate when a daughter of Henry IV of France gave a party in honor of St Valentine. Each lady in attendance at the party received a beautiful bouquet of flowers from the man chosen as her Valentine.
So from the earliest times through the Middle Ages and across the world came the holiday we know as St. Valentines. Despite the murky origins of our romance-filled holiday, it remains popular to send those you love a card, a gift or even flowers with the long standing signature, “From your Valentine”.