Valentine’s Day has become the annual event to declare your love for your sweetheart, but unlike other holidays, many don’t know much about the history of how it came to be. Valentine’s Day, as we now celebrate it, is thought to draw on both early Christian and ancient Roman traditions.
One legend attributes the celebration of love to a priest in third century Rome. When Emperor Claudius II outlawed marriage for young men, claiming those without a wife and children made for better soldiers, Valentine defied the law and secretly wed young lovers. For his actions, Valentine was put to death but remembered for his sympathy to young love.
Another legend from around 270 A.D. suggests Valentine was a priest who aided Christians escape Roman persecution. During his imprisonment for crimes against the Empire, the tale goes, that Valentine fell in love with the daughter of his jailor. Before his death, he supposedly wrote a sweepingly romantic letter to his lover, which he signed “From your Valentine”- a phrase still common in today’s celebration of love.
Historians also think that Valentine’s Day may be the result of the Christianization of the pagan Lupercalia festival, the ritual celebration of spring beginning and a time for purification. A goat would be sacrificed for fertility and its hide would be slapped on women and crops to increase their fertility in the coming year. On that day all of the young women would put their names into a big urn and later all the bachelors would draw names and be paired with their chosen lover.
Around 498 A.D., Pope Gelasius declared February 14 St. Valentine’s Day, but the lottery style matchmaking tradition was deemed un-Christian and outlawed. Years later, during the Middle Ages, the French and English believed that Feb. 14 was the start of mating season for birds, adding to the idea that mid-February was the perfect time to celebrate romance and love.
By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it became common for friends and lovers of all social classes to exchange messages or small tokens in celebration of their relationships.
In the 1840’s, Americans began purchasing and exchanging mass-produced valentines and today it’s estimated that 141 million valentine cards are sent each year, making it second, only to Christmas, as the largest card-sending holiday.
Some iconic symbols familiar to modern-day valentines also have a history. The red rose was believed to be the favorite flower of Venus, the Roman goddess of love and the red heart has long been a symbol of love. Since ancient civilization, the human heart has been linked to human emotion and romance. The Greeks’ Eros, or the Roman Cupid, attempted to land his arrows in the heart causing humans to fall hopelessly in love.
Another familiar Valentine’s gift is candy. In early America, the pilgrims began sending candies as tokens of love, since sugar was a rare and highly sought after product. In fifteenth century Mexico, Aztec Emporer Moctezuma I swore eating chocolate on a regular basis caused him to be more virile and better able to serve his harem.
Perhaps nothing symbolizes modern, American Valentine’s Day celebrations like the message-laden candy hearts. Last year more than 8 billion were produced, with popular phrases like “Be mine” and “Kiss Me” perpetuating the romance we celebrate on February 14.