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A History of St. Valentine's Day

Modern celebrations of St. Valentine's Day, a holiday now associated with romantic love, have both Christian and Roman origins. The Catholic church recognizes three saints named Valentine, all of whom were martyred for their faith. One of these Valentines was a priest who lived in Rome under the reign of the Emperor Claudius II. Believing that single men would make better soldiers than those with wives and families, Claudius decreed in 270 A.D. that young single men could not be married. However, Valentine, a young biship of Interamna, continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When Claudius discovered that Valentine was defying his decree, he had the bishop seized and brought before him. When Valentine refused to change his views and renounce Christianity, he was put in prison to await execution. In February of 270, Valentine was clubbed, stoned, and then beheaded. According to tradition, while Valentine awaited his execution in prison, he corresponded with those under his care by sending letters and love notes to those in his parish. It is also believed that while he was in prison, the bishop fell in love with a young woman who visited him during his confinement. Some believe that she was the blind daughter of the jailer, Asterius, and that God enabled him to miraculously restore her sight. Tradition tells us that his farewell message to her contained a closing that transcended time: "From Your Valentine." The celebration of the fourteenth day of February is believed to commemorate St. Valentine's death.

Valentine's Day also coincides with the ancient Roman festival, "Lupercalia", which began on the ides of February, or the 15th of the month. Lupercalia was a fertility festival that celebrated a young manís rite of passage to the god Lupercus. The pagan festival which dates back to the fourth century B.C. involved animal sacrifices and fertility rituals. One such ritual occurred at the end of the day, when willing young women would place their names in a large urn. According to tradition, every young, unmarried man chose a name out of the urn and was paired for an entire year, generally for sexual gratification, with the young lady whose name he drew. These matches often ended in marriage. In the fifth century A.D., the Church resolved to do away with this pagan celebration by creating its own holiday around the same date and choosing a saint who was remembered for his devotion to love. In A.D. 496, Pope Gelasius outlawed the Lupercian festival, but cleverly retained the lottery, because he was aware of the Romans' love for games of chance. But instead of placing names of young, unmarried women in the box, he had names of saints used instead. Both men and women drew slips of paper and were expected to aspire to imitate the life of the saint whose name they chose for the upcoming year. It took some time for this new tradition to gain popularity, but eventually, more and more Romans relinquished the Lupercian festival. However, Roman young men who had expected to meet potential mates during the festival were not completely satisfied with now having a lottery of saintsí names instead. The young men instituted their own custom of offering women whom they admired and wished to court handwritten greetings of affection on February 14. The cards became known as Valentineís Day Cards.

Through the years, the traditions surrounding Valentine's Day have changed. Hundreds of years ago in England, children dressed up as adults on Valentine's Day and went singing holiday verses from door to door. In Wales, wooden love spoons, carved with key, keyhole and heart designs, were given as gifts. In Europe, the tradition of giving oral and musical valentines was replaced by the giving of written missives in the 15th century. The first written valentine is usually attributed to the imprisoned Charles, Duke of Orleans, in 1415. He reportedly passed his time by writing romantic verses for his wife. By the 16th century, written valentines were commonplace and by the 17th century, it was a widespread tradition in England and other Western nations for friends and lovers to exchange gifts and notes on the holiday. During the early 1700s, Charles II of Sweden brought the Persian poetical art called "the language of flowers" to Europe. Throughout the 18th century, floral lexicons were published, allowing secrets to be exchanged with a lily or lilac, and entire conversations to take place in a bouquet of flowers. The more popular the flower, the more traditions and meanings were associated with it. The red rose, believed to be the favorite flower of Venus, the Roman goddess of love, became universally understood to represent romantic love. It quickly became popular to give red roses on Valentine's Day.

Valentine's Day is now associated with not only the giving of written sentiments, but with Cupid, hearts, roses, lace and chocolate. The Roman god of love, Cupid, has become one of the most recognized symbols of St. Valentine's Day. He is often portrayed as a mischievous, young boy with wings, armed with bow and arrows to pierce the hearts of young lovers. In ancient Greece, Cupid was known as Eros, the young son of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty. To the Romans, he was Cupid, and his mother was Venus. Both the Greeks and Romans believed that Cupid mischeviously caused gods and mortals to fall in love with one another by piercing hearts with arrows symbolizing romantic emotion.

Other Valentine symbols include lace, love knots, lovebirds, and "X"s. Lace has long been used to make women's handkerchiefs. Hundreds of years ago, if a woman dropped her handkerchief, a man might pick it up for her. Sometimes, if she had her eye on the right man, a woman might intentionally drop her handkerchief to encourage him. After several centuries, lace has been associated with romance. The symbol of love knots, which have series of winding and interlacing loops with no beginning and no end, are associated with everlasting love. Love knots were made from ribbon or drawn on paper and given to sweethearts. Lovebirds, colorful birds found in Africa, are so named because they sit closely together in pairs -- like sweethearts do! Doves are symbols of loyalty and love, because they mate for life and share the care of their young. As for the use of the "X" sign representing a kiss, this tradition started with the Medieval practice of allowing those who could not write to sign documents with an "X". This was done before witnesses, and the signer placed a kiss upon the "X" to show sincerity. This is how the kiss came to be synonymous with the letter "X", and how the "X" came to be commonly used at the end of letters as kiss symbols.

During the Victorian era as advances in printing spread, Valentine cards became popular. The modern postal service implemented the penny post, which also made it easier to mail written Valentines. (Before that time, postage was so pricey that most cards were delivered by hand.) In 1840, a woman by the name of Esther A. Howland sold the first mass-produced Valentine cards in America. Her first year of business brought an unexpected $5,000 in cards, and larger companies followed suit almost immediately. Howland's cards did away with the laborious task of making homemade valentines. Prior to her business, Victorian lovers made a number of different cards: pinprick valentines, made by pricking tiny holes in paper with a pin to resemble the look of lace; Cutout valentines, lace-look cards made by folding paper several times and cutting out a lace design with small, sharp scissors; acrostic valentines, which had verses in which the first letters in the lines spelled out the beloved's name; and rebus valentines, verses in which small pictures took the place of some of the words (e.g., an eye instead of "I"). Beautiful handmade Valentines were often small works of art, richly decorated with silk, satin or lace, flowers or feathers and even gold leaf. Some of the more unusual valentines were created by lonely sailors during the Victorian era; these unique cards used seashells of various sizes to create hearts, flowers and other designs or to cover heart-shaped boxes. Create your own Victorian valentines this year, or consider hosting a Victorian valentine-making party for your friends. Have everyone bring their own Victorian clip art or stickers, and you can provide the rest of the materials. You can find Victorian clip art in craft stores, books, stickers, and on wrapping paper. You can look for clip art from old greeting cards, magazines, etc.