By Michelle Colesanti
Valentine’s Day – it’s a time for showing love and appreciation to your significant others. But when did it begin and why? It’s not just a ‘Hallmark’ holiday. Its roots go way back.
Just who was Saint Valentine? Officially known as Saint Valentine of Rome, he was a third-century Roman priest.
At the time, the Emperor, Claudius II, decided that single men made better soldiers than those who had wives and families, so he banned marriage for young men. Valentine defied Claudius by continuing to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When this was discovered, Claudius ordered that Valentine be put to death.
Not much is reliably known, but most agree that St. Valentine was martyred and then buried on the Via Flaminia to the north of Rome.
It’s also believed that Valentine’s Day has origins in the Roman holiday Lupercalia, a pagan fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, as well as to the Roman founders Romulus and Remus.
According to another legend, an imprisoned Valentine actually sent the first “valentine” greeting after he fell in love with a young girl, possibly his jailor’s daughter. It is alleged that he wrote her a letter signed “From your Valentine,” an expression that is still in use today.
At the end of the fifth century, Pope Gelasius declared February 14 as St. Valentine’s Day. It was not until much later, however, that the day became definitively associated with love.
Valentine greetings were popular as far back as the middle ages. The oldest known valentine still in existence today was a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt. It is now part of the manuscript collection of the British Library in London, England.
Exchanging hand-made valentines in the Americas probably began in the early 1700s. Esther A. Howland began selling the first mass-produced valentines in America in the 1840’s. She was known as the “Mother of the Valentine,” and made elaborate creations with real lace, ribbons and colorful pictures known as “scrap.” Today, an estimated one billion Valentine’s Day cards are sent each year.
We may never know the true story, but Valentine’s Day continues to be one of the most popular of our annual holidays, which only reminds us of how important our loved ones are; something we should carry forward the rest of the year too.