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The History of Valentine’s Day

By Dillon Wallace

They say love hurts and the history of Valentine’s Day is a good indication as to why.


Considered today as a romantic kissy-faced, lovey-dovey holiday, Valentine’s began with some pretty rough love. And while a definitive origin of the holiday isn’t as sharp as Cupid’s arrows, we can look to a couple of different love affairs that spawned the sweetheart holiday.


Hitting on Women, Literally

The Romans despite all their civilized contributions could really act like savages. Back in early Roman times, pagans would celebrate Lupercalia, the festival of fertility, to welcome the coming spring. Celebrated around the middle of February, the festival would include a goat and dog sacrifice, followed by men hitting on women … literally, with the hides of the animals just slain.


Why? It turns out that there was a belief that the hide whipping would make the women fertile, well that and there was a lot of drinking. Like, A LOT. The festival would last a few days, in which a matchmaking lottery would also take place, pitting young men with women whose names they drew out of a jar. The “new couple” would remain together for the duration of the festival – maybe longer if the match was right.


So when they say love hurts, thanks to Lupercalia they actually mean it. But that’s just part of the convoluted origins of V-Day.


The Execution of St. Valentine

As if Valentine’s Day’s beginnings couldn’t get any muddier than the darkest chocolate in the box, they does. Why? Because there were two, possibly even three, St. Valentines murdered on February 14 – albeit different years – around the 3rd century A.D.


In what sounds like a Nicholas Sparks novel, here’s how the story goes.


Emperor Claudius II back in the 3rd century A.D. decided that single, young men made better soldiers than married men. So, like a loving and understanding emperor, he banned marriages from being performed in Rome. If you thought prohibition was bad, try telling someone they can’t legally love another person.


To be expected, not everyone took that loveless decree lightly, resulting in secret marriages performed by none other than a young priest named Valentine. But as you know “no good deed goes unpunished,” and Valentine was discovered by the emperor and thrown into prison to be executed. Yet as he awaited his passionate fate, Valentine fell in love with the jail keeper’s daughter. Through their short time together, he would write her letters and sign them, “From Your Valentine” – a saying that is still used today.


Then on February 14th around 270 A.D., Valentine – later ordained as St. Valentine – was beheaded after being beaten by clubs. Not much is known about the other two Valentine martyrs other than one was a bishop of Interamna (now Terni, Italy) and a possible third lived in the Roman province of Africa.


Now, you might be wondering how Valentine’s martyrdom has anything to do with Lupercalia. Well, did you happen to pick up on the coincidence that Valentine’s Day, February 14th, fell around the same time as the fertility festival of Lupercalia, which took place in mid-February?


That’s because it’s no coincidence. It’s believed that when Pope Gelasius I came to power, he merged the pagan holiday with St. Valentine’s Day in an effort to do away with the pagan ritual and convert the entire country to Christianity.


The Evolution of Valentine’s Day

So, Valentine’s Day’s origins are as red as the color blood for a reason, but when did all the sweet sentiments and tokens of affection that we know and love today come into play?

Well, the earliest Valentine on record is a valentine’s love poem written around 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife after he was captured at the Battle of Agincourt and imprisoned in the Tower of London. But the real romanticism of Valentine’s Day came through the work of Chaucer and Shakespeare in the 1500s and 1600s, as the popularity to send sonnets of love spread across Britain, Spain and the rest of Europe.


The “Mother of the Valentine”

Around 1840, the valentine exchange game upped the ante thanks in large part to Esther A. Howland, the “Mother of the Valentine.” Howland began making and selling the first mass-produced valentines in America. She created elaborate items with lace, ribbons and colorful “scrap” pictures.


Mass-produced love

In 1913, a little Kansas City company named Hallmark Cards began mass printing factory-made greeting cards which astronomically began to replace hand written notes. And the rest is history, as Valentine’s Day is now the second biggest card-selling holiday behind Christmas, as well as a $18 billion cash cow of jewelry, dinner dates, chocolates, flowers – and how can we forget a nod to the pagan fertility fest that started it all –  alcohol, and lots of it.


So the next time someone drones on about how Valentine’s Day was made up by the greeting card industry, you can tell them the truth. The long, confusing and painful truth behind it all.

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