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The Origins of Valentine's Day

The history of Valentine's day can be traced back to an obscure Catholic Church feast day, said to be in honor of Saint Valentine. In 496, Pope Gelasius chose Feb. 14th as the day to honor St. Valentine. There is a widespread legend that he created the day to counter the practice held on Lupercalia of young men and women pairing off as lovers by drawing their names out of an urn, but this practice is not attested in any sources from that era. The day's associations with romantic love arrived after the High Middle Ages, during which the concept of romantic love was formulated.

In Ancient Rome, February 15th was Lupercalia, the festival of Lupercus, the god of fertility, who was represented as half-naked and dressed in goat skins. As part of the purification ritual, the priests of Lupercus would sacrifice goats to the god, and after drinking wine, they would run through the streets of Rome holding pieces of the goat skin above their heads, touching anyone they met. Young women especially would come forth voluntarily for the occasion, in the belief that being so touched would render them fruitful and bring easy childbirth..

According to one legend, on the eve of the festival of Lupercalia the names of Roman girls were written on slips of paper and placed into urns. Each young man would draw a girl's name from the urn. A man would then wear a woman's name on his sleeve to claim her as his valentine and they would then be partners for the duration of the festival. This is where the expression "wearing your heart on your sleeve" comes from. The pairing lasted an entire year, and often, they would fall in love and would later marry.

The first recorded association of St. Valentine's Day with romantic love was in the 14th century in England and France, where February 14 was traditionally the day on which birds paired off to mate. It was common during that era for lovers to exchange notes on this day and to call each other their "Valentines". A 14th century valentine is said to be in the collection of the British Library. It is probable that many of the legends about St. Valentine were invented during this period. Among the legends are ones that assert that:

  • On the evening before St. Valentine was to be martyred for being a Christian, he passed a love note to his jailer's daughter which read, "From Your Valentine."
  • During a ban on marriages of Roman soldiers by the Emperor Claudius II because he believed that single men made better soldiers, St. Valentine secretly defied this decree and continued to perform marriages for young lovers. When discovered, he was put to death.

In most versions of these legends, February 14 is the date associated with his martyrdom.

During the 17th century, a hopeful maiden ate a hard-boiled egg and pinned five bay leaves to her pillow before going to sleep on Valentine's eve. It was believed this would make her dream of her future husband.

Valentine's Day was probably imported into North America in the 19th century with settlers from Britain. In the United States, the first mass-produced valentines of embossed paper lace were produced and sold shortly after 1847 by Esther Howland.

Starting in the 19th century, the practice of hand writing notes has largely given way to the exchange of mass-produced greeting cards. The Greeting Card Association estimates that, world-wide, approximately one billion valentine cards are sent each year, making the day the second largest card-sending holiday of the year behind Christmas. The association also estimates that women purchase approximately 85 percent of all valentines.

Personal observation, men, although this day may sometimes seem silly to you, ignoring it would be a mistake. Women feel like this is the one day out of the year that a man should express his love for you for no other reason (such as an anniversary) than that he loves you. Play your cards right and chances are you will be well rewarded.


Sources: Wikipedia & The History Channel

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