On February 14th, suitors ply the object of their affections with chocolate, flowers and verses of poetry. Some lucky ladies receive jewelry, while some lucky men are treated to a steak dinner with all the trimmings. ChildrenÂ enjoy exchanging little paper Valentines and sugar candy that says “Be mine,” but what do all these confections and pledged words have to do with the origins of Valentine’s Day.
The origins of Valentine’s Day begin roughly in 269 A.D. In that year, a Roman priest named Valentine would die a martyr to his cause. The priest married young Christian couples according to the tenets of his faith. The government of Rome ordered the priest to cease and desist his actions, but the priest continued to marry other Christian couples secretly. His refusal to repudiate Christianity and his cause to unite lovers with holy vows of matrimony landed him in prison, wherehe continued to preach his cause. During his incarceration, he struck up a friendship with the daughter of his jailer. He received notes from many of the couples he married and exchanged love letters of his own with the daughter. Legend states that on the day of his execution ( February 14th, 269 A.D.), he left a final letter for his love and signed it “From your Valentine” (see Resources section below). The legend of Valentine grew in Italy and Europe and in 496 A.D. the priest was honored with sainthood and his day of martyrdom became a day for lovers to celebrate his work.
Martyrdom and legend play significant parts in the origins of Valentine’s Day, but its celebration transcends religious observation and it is considered a secular holiday by many. The modern popularity of Valentine’s Day, sending Valentine’s Day cards and gifts and the current traditions observing February 14th in the United States can be traced back to a woman living in New England in 1847 named Esther Howland. Esther Howland received a Valentine card from a friend while in Europe. She so enjoyed the card that she began to make her own. When her efforts enchanted others, word of mouth spread the idea and soon she made Valentines and sold them to clients for a small fee. Howland’s work would eventually grow into the foundation of the American greeting card business and make the creation or purchase of Valentine’s Day cards an American tradition.
Valentine gave his name and the gift of love to the observation of February 14th, while Esther Howland gave her carefully crafted Valentine cards to the observation of the day. Traditionally, it fell to men to send Valentine’s gifts and tokens of affection, similar to how men paid court to the lady of their affection. Ladies purchased or created their handmade cards with carefully crafted messages for the men in their life. While modern Valentine’s day is observed with cards for parents, siblings and children, originally only lovers and would-be lovers paid court to each other on this day with small tokens (chocolate and flowers) being reserved for other important women (mothers) in a man’s life.
The origins of Valentine’s Day are tied in with another Roman festival. The festival of Lupercalia or Feast of Lupercalia began on the 14th with a holiday dedicated to Juno. Juno, the goddess of marriage and women, traditionally favored wives, brides and brides to be. The Feast of Lupercalia tied into her celebration as a way to honor potential new life (fertility), but also to honor the lives of Romulus and Remus (founders of Rome) who were saved by a she-wolf. During this celebration, Roman boys and girls who led very separate lives were allowed to mingle and pair up. The hopes were that love matches and marriages would be made, ensuring another generation for Rome. The social features of Valentine’s and the pairing up of girls and boys harkens back to this festival origin.
Modern Valentine’s Day celebrations are treated with far more levity than the day’s origins would suggest. Children exchange sweetheart gifts of character cards and simple candies while husbands ply their wives with flowers and chocolates. A boyfriend may propose to his girlfriend and some couples may marry. Children look for fun gifts to give their parents and parents indulge small children with pastel-colored stuffed animals. Valentine’s cards are sold by the hundreds of thousands and the blitz of red, pink and white celebrates a tradition that dates back nearly 2,000 years. It’s a tale worth remembering for the young couple considering courting. The origins of Valentine’s Day make the modern celebrations even more romantic.