In the United States, Miss Esther Howland is given credit for sending the first valentine greeting cards. Commercial valentines were introduced in the 1800’s. Every February 14th, candy, flowers, and gifts are exchanged between loved ones in the name of St. Valentine. But who is this saint and why do we celebrate this holiday when we do?
“For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day
Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate,”
When Geoffrey Chaucer wrote those words about February 14th as the day birds gathered to pair up as mates, he may have invented the holiday we know today. No record exists of romantic celebrations on St. Valentine’s Day prior his 1375 work, “Parliament of Foules,” in which he linked a tradition of courtly love with the celebration of St. Valentine’s feast day. The romantic association didn’t exist before that.
Valentinus, Latin for worthy or powerful, was a popular name in the early centuries A.D. Several martyrs over the centuries have this name. The saint we celebrate on February 14th is known as St. Valentine of Rome. Valentinus was martyred on February 14 late in the third century A.D.
In Rome, the Emperor Claudius II, “Claudius the Cruel,” was involved in many bloody and unpopular campaigns and was having a difficult time getting soldiers to join his legions. He blamed it on the idea that Roman men did not want to leave their loved ones and families. He prohibited all marriages and engagements in Rome as a solution.
Saint Valentine, who was a priest in Rome, in the year 269 A.D., together with his friend Saint Marius, defied Claudius and continued to secretly perform marriages for young lovers. Valentine’s actions were discovered and he was sentenced to be beaten to death and decapitated. While in prison, it is also believed that Valentine was tended by a young girl, probably his jailor’s daughter. Before his execution on the 14th day of February, he wrote her a letter, which he signed… “From your Valentine“. In 496 A.D., Pope Gelasius set aside February 14 to honor St. Valentine.
The tradition of exchanging declarations of love in mid February may have origins in the Roman festival, Lupercalia, a holiday to honor Juno who Juno was the Queen of the Roman Gods and goddess of women and marriage. In those days, the lives of young boys and girls were strictly separate. However, on the eve of Lupercalia, the names of Roman girls were written on slips of paper and placed into jars. Each young man would draw a girl’s name from the jar and would then be partners for the duration of the festival with the girl whom he chose. Then, the following day, February 15th, the feast began. Often, they would fall in love and marry.
Happy St. Valentine’s Day!