Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The History of Valentine's Day

           February 14 marks the official celebration of love.  According to a study completed for the National Retail Federation, Americans will shell out $18.6 billion on candy, flowers, jewelry, and other gifts for their sweethearts this Valentine’s Day.  Americans are not the only ones who choose to express their love on Valentine’s Day.  The day is also celebrated in Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, France, Australia, Italy, and Denmark.  But why do we do spend money in buying gifts on this particular day?  What is the significance of Valentine’s Day in the first place?  Is it simply a ploy by retailers to get us to spend our money?

            Valentine’s Day has been celebrated as a day to show affection to the one you love since at least the 14th century.  Yet, the history of the man (or men) for whom the day is named is a little sketchy.  Legend has it that there were at least three different men named Valentine for whom the day is dedicated.  All were said to have been martyred for their faith on February 14.  Interestingly, the confusion over who Valentine actually was and what he did led the Catholic Church to drop St. Valentine's Day from their official calendar of feast days in 1969.  Yet, the celebration of Valentine’s Day remains prominent in our culture.

The most well-known of the three men named Valentine was a priest who lived in Rome in the third century during the reign of Claudius II.  Claudius wanted to strategically build his military, so he declared that young men were no longer able to get married.  Valentine defied the Emperor’s edict and secretly married young couples.  Unfortunately, Valentine was caught and was imprisoned.  In the end, he was condemned to death and was beheaded outside Rome’s Flaminian Gate around 269 AD, allegedly on February 14. 

Several legends were associated with Valentine and the circumstances of his death.  In one story, Valentine is credited with restoring the sight of his jailer’s blind daughter.  This story goes on to claim that on the night before his execution, Valentine penned a letter to the jailer’s daughter and signed it, “From your Valentine”.  Whether these stories or any others associated with Valentine are true, there indeed was a man named Valentine.  In 1836, some relics that were exhumed from the catacombs of St. Hippolytus near Rome were identified with Valentine. 

The association of St. Valentine’s Day with love and romance is rooted in the Roman festival of Lupercalia which was celebrated on February 15.  On this day, the Romans honored the god, Lupercus, and picked a romantic partner for the year.  The Catholic Church commonly chose to offer Christians an alternative to pagan celebrations.  Hence, in the 5th century Pope Gelasius I established February 14 as a day to honor St. Valentine.  Nonetheless, Roman men continued their former traditions in seeking out the affections of women.  Expressing love and affection on Valentine’s Day has been widely popular since the Middle Ages, though written notes were not commonplace until around 1400.  In the United States, written Valentine’s were shared amongst the earliest settlers.  Around 1840, Esther Howland began producing and selling the first mass-produced Valentines in America. 

Hence, whether the legends associated with St. Valentine’s Day are all true or not, this day has long been associated with love.  The tradition of expressing love through the written word and/or gift giving has been in place much longer than retailers and greeting card companies.  So do not feel that in celebrating your love on this day you are simply falling victim to commercialism.  All things considered, we truly need something to brighten up these long Ohio winters, and Valentine’s Day offers us the opportunity!

1 comment:

  1. Here is an animated video version on history of valentine: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HGx7q4O6w2w
    It tells exactly how Valentine was captured by Claudius, and was executed, right after he wrote the eternally remembered 'from your Valentine' letter.

    Feel free to embed the video, it is using CC attribution.