There are approximately 150 million Valentine’s Day cards exchanged each year in America, making this holiday the most popular card-sending holiday, second only to Christmas day! We all know that in today’s world Valentine’s Day is an opportunity to show our appreciation for the one we love, our significant other. We celebrate by buying special gifts like candy, chocolate, flowers, or jewelry, which are meant to symbolize our love and affection for another, all in the name of St. Valentine. But where did this tradition of valentines come from?
Surprisingly, there is actually a lot to the history of Valentine’s Day that remains a mystery! What we do know is its origins come from both Christian and Roman traditions. In the Catholic church, a few sources refer to three different saints all named Valentine; all three of whom were martyred. In general though, legend has it that Valentine was a priest who served the church in Rome during its third century. At the time, the Emperor of Rome decided men who were single made for better soldiers than did married men. For this reason, he banned marriage for young men.
Well, the Catholic priest Valentine did not agree nor support this decision by the Emperor and resisted the ban on marriage by continuing to perform marriages in secret for young people. When the Emperor discovered what Valentine was doing, he ordered Valentine be put to death! According to this legend, this is why we now celebrate Valentine’s Day in association with love and romance.
However, a different legend has it that Valentine might have been killed for trying to help Christians escape from cruel, harsh Roman prisons. According to this legend, Valentine was imprisoned there and while there, sent the first valentine greeting to a woman he fell in love with there at the prison. She is believed to have been a young girl—possibly the jailor’s daughter—who visited Valentine while he was imprisoned. Before he was killed, it is believed the letter he sent to her was signed, “From your Valentine,” which is the phrase still used on the holiday today.
Some believe Valentine’s Day is celebrated in the middle of February to recognize the anniversary of Valentine’s death or burial.
The popularity of Valentine’s day is nothing new. Valentine’s Day greetings were popular as far back as the Middle Ages! Written Valentine’s Day greetings didn’t begin to appear, however, until after 1400. The first and oldest known written Valentine’s Day greeting was a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans. He wrote the poem to his wife while in prison in London after his capture. This poem is now a part of the manuscript collection in the British Library located in London.
Unsurprisingly, the United States is not the only country that recognizes and celebrates Valentine’s Day. Mexico, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Australia, Japan, and others all celebrate this romantic holiday. In Great Britain, Valentine’s Day started to be popular around the 17th century, and by the 18th century it began to be a common practice for friends and romantic lovers to give not only love notes and letters, but also gifts and tokens of their affection. It was in the 1900s that printed Valentine’s Day cards started to replace the hand-written letters. At this point with technological improvements, store-bought cards became more popular as it was an easier way for people to express their feelings without being too direct, as at the time, direct expression of emotions wasn’t encouraged.
The United States started exchanging gifts and cards for Valentine’s Day in the early 1700s. Then, in the mid-1800s, mass produced Valentine’s Day cards and items were established and quickly gained popularity. One particular individual, Esther A. Howland, played a major role in its popularity, and was known as the “Mother of the Valentine.” She would create fancy lace and ribbon creations as well as colorful pictures.
Even though the history on Valentine isn’t clear, one thing is sure, and that’s that he was viewed as a sympathetic, romantic, and heroic individual. His reputation endured, making him one of the most popular saints, and has also led to one of the most popular holidays celebrated today.
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