If you’re the one who put the Saint in Valentine, it might surprise you to know that your namesake holiday is all about red paper hearts, greeting cards and chocolate. The fact is that Valentine’s Day has its roots in third century Rome when two men named Valentine were beheaded by the Emperor Claudius II. Some scholars believe that these two gentlemen are actually the same person. Makes sense when you consider the odds of two Valentines being beheaded by the same guy in the same year. Although the historical record is a bit sketchy, legend is rich in stories about saints named Valentine (or Valentinus). One is said to have performed marriages, forbidden at the time for young couples. (Apparently Claudius II believed that single men made better soldiers). Another Valentine reportedly helped Christians escape Roman prisons and yet another is said to have written a letter to his jailor’s daughter the night before his execution, signing it “from your Valentine.” We really don’t know for sure which Valentine is THE Valentine, but we do know that people began associating love with a martyr named Saint Valentine sometime in the third century.
We also know that Valentine’s Day ultimately replaced a pagan fertility festival called Lupercalia. Far from romantic, the ritual featured women being slapped with strips of bloody goat hide (from recently sacrificed goats) by mostly-naked priests in order to promote fertility. I'm not judging, but it's probably better for everyone involved that Pope Gelasius put the kibosh on Lupercalia in the fifth century.
So what put the romance in Valentine’s Day? Fast forward about a thousand years to 1375 England when the poet, Geoffery Chaucer first made the connection. It was February 14th, the beginning of mating season for the birds of France and England, when he penned:
“For this was on seynt Volantynys day.
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his mate.”
Written Valentines began to appear about 25 years later. The oldest known Valentine still in existence today was written from the Tower of London where Charles, Duke of Orleans was imprisoned. The Valentine was written to his wife.
Americans began exchanging hand made Valentines as early as the 1700s, but things really took off in the 1840s when greeting cards were first mass produced by Esther A. Howland. She’s actually known as the “Mother of the Valentine” and for her elaborate cards embellished with lace and ribbon. Today, an estimated 145 million Valentines are sent. According to the Greeting Card Association, that’s more than Mother’s Day and second only to Christmas.
Of course we all know that Valentine's Day is about more than the greeting cards. Surprisingly, chocolate - 58 million pounds of it – and 250 million roses are not enough for top billing when it comes to Valentine’s dollars. That would be jewelry which comes in at close to 4 billion. I think it’s safe to say that we took a simple idea and ran with it.
This is where I would ordinarily make a cynical comment about the commercialization of Valentine's Day. But this year I'm looking at it a little differently. This year I'm looking past the mountains of flowers and chocolate at the people who buy them. Friends and lovers, moms and dads, sons, daughters, sisters, brothers all buying expressions of love for the people who are special to them. That's a lot of love and, in my mind, cause for celebration. I think it's quite possible that all the Saint Valentines would agree.
Happy Valentine's Day 2021!
SMITHSONIAN MAGAZINE, The Gory Origins of Valentine’s Day, Lisa Bitel, Professor of History & Religion, University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, February 14, 2018
BRITANNICA, Valentine’s Day, written by the editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, February 3, 2021
THE HISTORY CHANNEL, History of Valentine’s Day, History.com Editors, February 11, 2021
GOURMET GIFT BASKETS, Crazy Valentine's Day Facts, Gwen Watson, February 3, 2021