The traditions of St. Valentine’s Day mix elements of both ancient Roman rites and Christian tradition. To confuse matters, three different saints named Valentine are recognized by the Roman Catholic Church.
One legend states Valentine was a priest in Rome during the third century. Emperor Claudius II decreed that marriage was to be outlawed for young men, as he thought that single men made better soldiers than those who were married with families.
Valentine, felt the decree was unjust and unfair, and defied the Emperor by performing secret marriages for young lovers. When his actions for undercover lovers was discovered, Claudius ordered valentine be executed.
However, according to another legend, Valentine may have actually sent the first ‘valentine’ greeting himself. In 270 AD on the day before he was to be executed for refusing to renounce his Christian beliefs, he is said to have sent a note of appreciation to his jailer’s daughter for bringing him food and delivering messages while he was imprisoned, signed “from your Valentine.”
While we can never be certain as to the true origin of the St. Valentine legend, one thing is for sure, it must have been an appealing and enduring story because by the Middle Ages, Valentine had become one of the most popular saints in France and Britain.
The timing of Valentine’s day may have been driven by the practice of trying to integrate previous pagan festivals into the Christian calendar. in this case, the Lupercalia festival.
Lupercalia, which began on the ‘ides of February’, was a fertility festival dedicated to the agricultural god Lupercus and to the Goddess of Love, Juno, as well as to the Roman founders Romulus and Remus. Roman maidens placed their names into an urn set up in the public squares and young single men drew from it to get a ‘blind date’ for the coming year. More often than not, these annual matches often ended in marriage.
St. Valentine’s Day was first set at February 14th by Pope Gelasius, around 500 AD. By this time, the ‘lottery’ system for romantic dating had deemed un-Christian and had been outlawed. During the Middle Ages, the practice of love lotteries carried on as ‘Chance Boxes’. In France, drawings from the boxes gave young couples one year to get married or part company. In England, it was a common practice for men to wear the name of the girl they drew from the chance boxes on their sleeve, enclosed within a heart.
Also during this period, it was commonly believed in parts of England and France that February 14 marked the beginning of birds’ mating season, which increased the notion that Valentine’s Day should be a day for romance.
Valentines messages started to appear around the beginning of the Fifteenth century, and even in these formative times they were often given anonymously.
The oldest known valentine in the world still in existence today was a romantic ode written by Charles, Duke of Orleans to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London after his capture during the Battle of Agincourt. The greeting, was written in 1415, and is part of the manuscript collection of the British Library in London.
In the UK, St. Valentine’s Day became a popular celebration around the 1600’s. It continued to take hold, with the familiar “roses are red, violets are blue…” verses making their debut sometime in the seventeenth century. By the 1850’s, it was common for lovers from all social standings to give their adored ones small gifts or handwritten letters. At the same time, in France, people began to decorate their valentines with ribbons and lace.
By the start of the twentieth century, the handwritten letters gave way to cards as advances in printing technology had improved the quality of printed cards. At the time, it was culturally discouraged for people to show their emotions in such a direct way as a letter, so a printed card was a more acceptable method. More affordable postage costs and increasing use of the postal system probably contributed to the rise in popularity of the Valentine’s card.
Americans probably first began exchanging handmade valentines with verses in the early 1700s. In the mid nineteenth century, the first mass-produced valentines began to go on sale in America. Miss Esther Howland, an artist and entrepreneur, became the first regular publisher of valentines in the USA. Often referred to as ‘the Mother of the Valentine’, Miss Howland designed many elaborate creations using lace, ribbons and colourful pictures known as “scrap”. Her cards usually cost between $5 – $10 each, with some as much as $35, astonishingly expensive for the time.
The Greeting Card Association estimates that if we include children’s classroom valentines, over one billion valentine cards will be opened this year. St. Valentine’s Day is the second largest card-sending time of the year, accounting for 25% of all seasonal card sales (Christmas accounts for 60%).
It is estimated that women purchase 80 percent of all valentine’s cards, which means that a large proportion of men either forget, or aren’t very romantic when it comes to reciprocating! Valentine’s Day is celebrated in the USA, Canada, Mexico, United Kingdom, France, and Australia, and is increasing in popularity in many other parts of the world.
Facts about Valentine’s day cards (from the Greeting Card Association)
Approximately 25% of individual valentine cards are humorous, with adults aged 35-and-under being the most likely to send humorous cards.
Valentine’s Day is the largest e-card sending occasion of the year. An estimated 14 million e-valentines will be sent in 2008.
Greeting cards are traditionally the most popular Valentine’s Day gift in the U.S., ranking ahead of chocolates, flowers or dinner out.
American men may be more serious about Valentine’s Day than women. In a national survey for GCA in 2007, 45% of women said they were likely to give a humorous valentine to their sweetheart, compared to only 34% of men.
The percentage of individual valentines exchanged through the mail in comparison to hand delivery is approximately 50-50.
Red is the most popular color choice for valentine cards, follow by pink and then white. Hearts, roses, Cupid and lace are traditional valentine card icons.