The history of Valentine’s Day, celebrated on February 14 each year, is surrounded by mystery. The modern St. Valentine’s Day contains both Christian and ancient Roman tradition. So, who was Saint Valentine and how did he become associated with Valentine’s Day? Well, the Catholic Church has at least three different saints named Valentine/ Valentinus, all of whom were martyred.
One legend says that Valentine was a priest in Rome during the third century. Emperor Claudius II outlawed marriage for young men because he decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families. But, Valentine continued to perform marriages for young couples in secret. Of course Valentine was caught, and Claudius had him put to death.
Another story suggests that Valentine may have been killed for attempting to help Christians escape harsh Roman prisons where they were often beaten and tortured.
Yet another legend states that Valentine actually sent the first valentine greeting himself. While in prison, Valentine fell in love with a young girl who visited him there. It is said that he wrote a letter to the girl before he was put to death, and he signed it “From your Valentine.”
Even though there is no definitive evidence behind these stories, they do paint Valentine as a romantic figure. By the Middle Ages, Valentine was one of the most popular saints in England and France.
Pope Gelasius declared February 14 to be St. Valentine’s Day about 498 A.D. The oldest known valentine still in existence today was a poem written 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. The greeting, which was written in 1415, is part of the manuscript collection of the British Library in London, England.
In Great Britain, Valentine’s Day began to be popularly celebrated around the seventeenth century. By the middle of the eighteenth century, it was common for friends and lovers in all social classes to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes. By the end of the century, printed cards began to replace written letters due to improvements in printing technology. Americans probably began exchanging hand-made valentines in the early 1700s. In the 1840s, Esther A. Howland began to sell the first mass-produced valentines in America.
In addition to the United States, Valentine’s Day is celebrated in Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, France, and Australia.
There are many legends about who was the original Valentine, but the spirit of love continues as valentines are sent with sentimental verses each year on February 14.
I wish you a Happy Valentine’s Day!