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Origin of Valentine’s Day and Its Traditions

Hannah Cote, Staff Reporter

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From its bloody origins to today’s chocolatey traditions, Americans spend millions on chocolate, flowers, and cards for their special “valentine” each February. But who is St. Valentine? How did he get caught up in this holiday? Where did these traditions come from? To be honest, no one really knows.  Valentine’s Day is a holiday shrouded in mystery. There are aspects of both Christian and Roman traditions involved, but that’s about all we know. There’s plenty of theories out there, but let’s just take a look at the most popular ones.

February has long been associated with romance because birds were believed to couple during this month (because nothing screams romance like mating birds apparently). The date February 14 was decided upon because it was when St. Valentine was martyred. The issue with that is that the Catholic Church recognizes at least three saints named Valentine, or Valentinus, during this time. There are plenty of legends out there, but the two most popular are that Valentine was a priest who married soldiers when the emperor outlawed it (He thought that single men made better soldiers. Why, I don’t know.), or that Valentine was killed for attempting to help Christians escape harsh Roman prisons, where they were often beaten and tortured. According to one legend, an imprisoned Valentine actually sent the first “valentine” himself after he fell in love with his jailer’s daughter, who visited him during his confinement. Before his death, it is said that he wrote her a letter signed “from your Valentine,” an expression that people still use today.

Some theories state that the saint may not even have anything to do with Valentine’s Day. Many people think that it was the church’s attempt to “Christianize” the pagan holiday Lupercalia, which occurred on February 15. Lupercalia was a fertility festival dedicated to the Roman founders and the Roman god of agriculture, Faunus. Rituals included sacrificed and slapping women with goat hides covered in sacrificial blood. That sounds weird (and quite frankly, gross), but Roman women welcomed it, thinking that it would make them more fertile in the coming year. Later, the names of all the young women in the city were placed in a big urn, and the city’s bachelors would each choose a name and be paired with that woman for the year. These matches often ended in marriage. A similar ritual was common during the Middle Ages, when young men and women drew names from a bowl to see who would be their Valentine. They would have this name pinned onto their sleeves for one week for everyone to see. This was the origin of the expression “to wear your heart on your sleeve.”

Valentine’s greetings probably began during the Middle Ages, but written valentines didn’t show up until 1400. The oldest written valentine was written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned.  Americans probably started giving them in the 1700s. In the 1840s, Esther A. Howland began selling the first mass-produced valentines made of real lace, ribbons, and colorful pictures known as “scrap.” For this reason she is known as the “Mother of the Valentine.”
In addition to the United States, Valentine’s Day is celebrated in Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, France and Australia. Approximately 150 million-1 billion Valentine’s Day cards are exchanged annually, making Valentine’s Day the second most popular card-sending holiday after Christmas. Women purchase approximately 85% of all valentines (can’t say I’m surprised). So you can thank St. Valentine and the ancient Romans for your discounted chocolate, bouquets of flowers, and overpriced cards.

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Origin of Valentine’s Day and Its Traditions