Valentines Day history hails sweet sacrifice
The giving of valentines can make an ordinary day one of history
Confusion can be the order of the day when it comes to tracing the roots of America’s sweetest holiday—Valentine’s Day. Most people mention the Hallmark card company or a vast chocolate candy conspiracy as often as any historical figure when asked about the holiday’s history. Fortunately, the love knot surrounding the holiday celebrated in America on February 14 can be untangled with – or at least loosened a bit.
It all started with Lupercalia
In mid-February, Romans traditionally celebrated a fertility holiday known as Lupercalia. And being Romans at that time, well, there were a lot of er, um fertility activities going on at the festivities. Around the 5th Century C.E. (Common Era), the pope got wind of what was happening and declared the 14th of February Saint Valentines Day, hoping to Christianize the date.
But who was this Valentine?
Our best guess includes a tragic beginning
During the early Christian era, untold numbers of Christian martyrs were persecuted and slain by leaders of the Roman Empire. These martyrs, including our sought after Valentine, chose death rather than abandon their religious beliefs.
Here’s where the trail becomes hard to follow. It’s accepted the Valentine was a martyr. And that he was canonized. But numerous martyrs at the time were named Valentine. And several of them were canonized.
The name was in fact fairly common in Roman families. The name comes from a Latin word, valens, which means lively, spirited, healthy and vigorous (traits highly valued in the often dangerous area in which they lived.)
Over the centuries, scholars and story tellers have side-stepped the common name issue, and settled on a rebellious priest from Rome named Valentine—a man who lived in the 3rd Century A.D. and was later canonized.
The Emperor at the time wasn’t happy about trying to fight wars with an army full of lovesick soldiers who just wanted to get back home to their wife and kids. So in a face palm move that was so typical for Emperors, he banned all marriage for those young enough to serve in the army.
As the story goes, Father Valentine defied the Emperor’s ban on marriage, joining young couples in marriage. When he was captured and imprisoned, the young lovers would pass by the window to his jail cell and give him flowers to thank him.
Still not happy with all the attention Father Valentine was getting, Emperor Claudius II order Valentine executed. While in prison, Father Valentine fell in love with his jailer’s daughter. As he was led to his death on February 14th, it’s said that he passed a note to his beloved. The note was signed “Your Valentine.”
Don’t forget about Cupid!
The Roman’s got to add one more element to what we now expect on Valentine’s Day. Cupid—the son of Venus—has a special place in the history of Valentine's Day. Even today, most people know the myth one instantly falls in love if struck by his arrows. Cute little cupids today adorn all kinds of Valentine’s Day gifts from greeting cards to lingerie.
And what’s with all that red?
Today’s sweet temptations such as chocolate dipped strawberries, red clothing and wrapping paper covered in red hearts are veiled reminders of ancient Valentine’s Day history. Why? Okay, this is not for the squeamish… you remember that Valentine was beheaded for believing in love and marriage, right? Well, that particular method of disposing of troublemakers lead to a rather bloody end. And thus…red. Hey, I warned you!’
Contemporary practices herald ancient roots
Today, Valentine’s Day is more about gifts and flowers and elementary school Valentine’s card boxes than martyrdom. Flower arrangements, love letters, huge boxes of chocolate and apparel items featuring hearts and cupids are the popular reminders of Valentine’s commitment to love at all costs. In liturgical circles, celebrations of the feast day of St. Valentine have all but ended.