If you thought that Valentine’s Day began and ended with Hallmark, you may be surprised to learn that there is a long history behind the holiday devoted to love. While we certainly see a lot of commercialism involved nowadays, there was a time when it was less about cards, roses, chocolates, and dinner reservations and more about pledging a lifetime of love to another person. So if you’re looking for a way to give the holiday a little more meaning for you and your family than a just a card that says “Will you be mine?” here are a few facts you might not know about the origins of this heartfelt holiday.
For one thing, there’s St. Valentine to consider. He started out as a Christian cleric of the Roman Empire around 200-300 AD. At that time, Claudius II decreed that Roman soldiers were not allowed to marry because he felt that wives and children were too much of a distraction and that they made men weak. Since his armies had to fight attackers on all fronts, he wanted the strongest force possible. Most of the men in his service were opposed to this rule, and luckily, some members of the clergy were as well, and they offered to marry the soldiers and their lady loves in secret. Valentine was one such bishop.
As the legend goes, his actions were discovered and he was arrested and sentenced to death. But while he was in prison, he was able to heal the daughter of one of his jailors. And apparently, just before his execution was carried out, he sent her a card bearing the inscription “From Your Valentine”. You can chalk that last bit up to rumor, but it wasn’t long before young Romans began exchanging “valentines”, or cards expressing love, on the day of his death, February 14th (consequently, this also became the date of his martyrdom).
This story has clearly been somewhat romanticized, although it does contain some modicum of historical fact. It is true that Claudius II outlawed marriage amongst soldiers and that sympathetic priests married them anyway. And it seems to be agreed that a bishop named Valentine lived during this time. However, the choice of February 14th for Valentine’s Day may have less to do with this man’s death and more to do with the Christian tradition of inclusion.
During the time when Christianity was spreading, it was often the practice to incorporate the beliefs and holidays of other religions into their dogma as a way to attract followers. At this time of year, Romans (and possibly even pre-Romans) celebrated a festival called Lupercalia, which focused on cleansing and purification to bring about health and fertility (and hence, love). By creating Valentine’s Day, based on romantic love, the church gave Romans who embraced Christianity a means to continue their traditional celebration without coming into conflict with their church.
The popularity of the holiday continued to grow throughout the middle ages, with cards and gifts becoming festooned with many of the current trappings (hearts, cupids, lacey adornments) during the Victorian era. Today, nearly a fourth of all greeting cards purchased in a year are associated with Valentine’s Day, and the holiday aimed at our hearts is one that remains dear to us, in keeping with its origins as a day that brought together young lovers and old religions.
[Sarah Danielson works for Pennsylvania Precision Cast Parts, a leading medal casting manufacturer specializing in the investment casting process.]