Valentine’s Day origins mix history, legends

Posted Feb. 13, 2009, at 8:24 p.m.

The Romans gave us the love, the Catholic Church gave us the saint, Chaucer gave us the birds, and a woman from Worcester, Mass., gave us the greeting card.

Most likely none of them suspected that in the 21st century Americans would spend $13.7 billion on Valentine’s Day. A study on consumer habits published earlier this month in the Journal of Business Research reported that’s how much was spent on the holiday in 2006.

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Unlike the celebration of Christmas and Easter, which also incorporate pagan traditions, St. Valentine’s Day has lost its religious significance. In 1969, the Catholic Church revised its liturgical calendar and removed the feast days of saints, including St. Valentine, whose historical origins were questionable.

For 800 years, the ancient Romans considered February the beginning of spring and on the 15th held a fertility festival called Lupercalia, according to www.history.com. During the celebration, all the young women in the city, according to legend, placed their names in a large urn. Each of the city’s bachelors would choose a name and become paired for the year with the woman whose name he chose.

In an effort to do away with the pagan festival, Pope Gelasius I changed the lottery, according to an article by Jerry Wilson published on www.wilstar.com.

“Instead of the names of young women, the box would contain the names of saints,” he wrote. “Both men and women were allowed to draw from the box, and the game was to emulate the ways of the saint they drew during the rest of the year.

“Needless to say,” Wilson continued, “many of the young Roman[s] were not too happy. Instead of the pagan god Lupercus, the church looked for a suitable patron saint of love to take his place. They found an appropriate choice in Valentine, who, in 270 A.D. had been beheaded by Emperor Claudius [II].”

Claudius believed that single men made better soldiers than men with wives and families, so he outlawed marriage for young men, according to www.history.com. Valentine, who was a priest, secretly married young lovers. When the priest’s deception was uncovered, Claudius ordered him stoned and beheaded.

Another legend, according to www.infoplease.com, says that while in prison awaiting his fate, Valentine fell in love with the blind daughter of his jailer. His love for her and his great faith miraculously healed her blindness. Before he was executed, he reportedly sent her a letter signed “from your Valentine.”

Pope Gelasius I declared Valentine a saint in 496, the final year of his papacy, for refusing to renounce his Christianity. His feast day was set on Feb. 14 and was to be a celebration of God’s love presented in Jesus and the lives of Christian believers, according to the Religion Newswriters Association.

It was not until the 14th century that St. Valentine’s feast day was associated with love by the writer Geoffrey Chaucer, according to medieval scholar Henry Ansgar Kelly. Chaucer composed a poem in 1381 for the engagement of England’s Richard II and Anne of Bohemia. In “Parliament of Fowls,” the royal engagement, the mating season of birds — which begins in February in the British Isles — and St. Valentine’s Day were linked.

Charles, Duke of Orleans, may have penned the oldest valentine still in existence, according to www.history.com. He wrote a poem to his wife while imprisoned in the Tower of London after being captured in 1415 in the Battle of Agincourt. It is believed that a few years later, King Henry V hired a writer to compose a valentine note to Catherine of Valois.

By the 18th century, gift giving and exchanging handmade cards on Valentine’s Day were common in Great Britain, according to www.infoplease.com. Handmade cards slowly spread to the American colonies but the tradition did not become widespread until the 1850s. That’s when Esther A. Howland, a Mount Holyoke graduate and native of Worcester, Mass., began mass-producing them.

Today, an estimated 1 billion valentine cards are purchased each year, according to the Greeting Card Association, accounting for about 25 percent of the greeting cards sold annually. About 85 percent of those cards are purchased by women.

The most recent addition to offerings for the holiday is the Anti-Valentine’s Day card, which makes fun of the holiday’s emphasis on romantic love.

Valentine’s Day is celebrated in Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, France, Australia and the United States.

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