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What’s the real story behind Valentine’s Day?

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The Roman Catholic Church recognizes three different saints named Valentine (also known as Valentinus) all of whom were martyred.


Every year Feb. 14 brings a flutter of activity in candy stores and flower shops around the world as gifts are exchanged between loved ones.

Whether it’s given to a spouse or a friend, parent or child, all things red- whether hearts, heart-shaped candy boxes, cards or roses- symbolize love, all in the name of St. Valentine. But who is this mysterious saint?

Over the years there have been many stories printed in newspapers and magazines describing the origin of this holiday dedicated to love, but further investigation shows there is much more ancient history than at first meets the eye.

From ancient Roman rituals to the customs of Victorian England, it’s as hard to separate fact from fable as chocolates melted in the box.

The Roman Catholic Church recognizes three different saints named Valentine (also known as Valentinus) all of whom were martyred.

One legend based on the Christian saints is that St. Valentine was a priest who served in Rome during the 3rd Century. When the Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret and when this was discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death.

There are other stories saying that St. Valentine was killed for helping Christians escape from Roman prisons, where they were often beaten and tortured. According to another legend, an imprisoned Valentine actually sent the first “valentine” greeting himself after he fell in love with the jailor’s daughter who visited him regularly.

As that story goes, St. Valentine is said to have written a letter to the jailor’s daughter signed “From your Valentine” just before he was put to death.

Although the truth behind the Valentine legends is cloudy, the stories all emphasize his appeal as a sympathetic and (most importantly) a romantic hero.

But other less widely known legends go back even further than the Catholic church’s saint, who was reportedly martyred in 270 AD.

One of these ancient legends goes back to the pagan festival of Lupercalia, a fertility festival dedicated to the Roman god of agriculture, Faunus (from which the word fauna was apparently taken.)

This holiday was celebrated around the Ides of February, which occurred Feb. 15. The Ides being the way the Roman calendar was calculated every month- although today most of us have only heard of the Ides of March.

Some believe the Christian church placed the St. Valentine’s Day holiday deliberately during Lupercalia, because the church fathers were unable to curb its popularity, even after making its celebration illegal.

During Lupercalia, priests from the society of Luperci would gather at the cave where it was rumored that Romulus and Remus- celebrated to be the founders of Rome- had been cared for by the she-wolf Lupa. There they would sacrifice a goat and a dog and tear the goat-hide into strips and wet it with “sacrificial” blood and go around touching the hides to women and fields to make them fertile.

As part of this ceremony, the women would put their names into a community urn and men would randomly pick their mate for the season, sometimes falling in love, in which case they were allowed to stay with that mate and not participate the following year.

More fodder for February romantic fire comes from the Middle Ages. In Europe it was widely-believed that birds began to mate right around mid-February, and this was added to the idea that this was indeed a “season for romance.”

One French legend says that King Henry V hired a writer (according to Internet findings, his name was John Lydgate) to compose a written valentine letter to Lady Catherine of Valois. Most valentine greetings were oral until after 1400 AD.

The oldest written valentine known to be in existence is now in the British Library in London. It is a poem written by Charles, the Duke of Orleans, in 1415 to his wife while he was in prison in the Tower of London after being captured during the Battle of Agincourt.

Nowadays, Valentine’s Day is not only celebrated in the United States and the United Kingdom, but also in France, Canada, Mexico and Australia.

Since the middle of the 18th Century it has been common for friends, lovers and family members of all economic levels to exchange cards and gifts, especially candy and flowers, which were known throughout the ages as symbols of love.

By 1900, printing had advanced far enough for cards to be used by people who could afford to buy them instead of writing them by hand.

A deeper study into the history of the holiday shows that In the 1840s, Esther Howland began selling the first mass-produced valentines in America. Howland, known as the “Mother of the Valentine,” made elaborate creations with real lace, ribbons and colorful pictures known as “scrap.”

Today, according to the Greeting Card Association, an estimated one billion Valentine’s Day cards are sent each year, making Valentine’s Day the second largest card-sending holiday of the year, second only to Christmas.

Florists say it is second in their industry only to Mother’s Day.

But what to believe about the early history of Valentine’s Day? That is for each individual who reads the many legends to decide.

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