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The History of Valentine's Day and St. Valentine

Each year, on February 14, people celebrate Valentine's Day by showing their loved ones how much they care for them. This holiday dates back as far as 496 A.D. with the Festival of Lupercalia, which was originally celebrated on February 15 as a fertility right. Romans honored the gods Lupercus, Faunus, and the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus. As a tradition on this day, the names of girls would be placed on slips of paper and placed in a jar, where in turn, men would draw a name and would be partners with whom he chose for the remainder of the festival; however, many of these relationships lasted longer, and some even married.

During the 5th century A.D., Pope Gelasius wanted to do away with the Lupercalia ritual, stating that it was immoral and pagan. He then created another celebration on a date close to that of Lupercalia, on February 14, which honored a saint known for his love and devotion, that saint being St. Valentine. In 496 A.D. Pope Gelasius officially abandoned the festival of Lupercalia in order to pay tribute to St. Valentine, but decided to keep the lottery of names because the Romans extremely enjoyed it. However, he chose to replace the names on the slips of paper with those of saints rather than girls. When men selected a saint's name from the jar, they were expected to live a life similar to that saint for the next year. Despite the Church's efforts, men and women continued to search for their own partners, but the admiration for St. Valentine continued to grow.

There are many legends on the origins of St. Valentine's Day and who Valentine actually was, but there is one that seems to overshadow the rest. Valentine, the priest, lived in Rome during the 3rd century under Emperor Claudius II. It is believed that Claudius needed soldiers for war and considered single men better suited for the job as opposed to those who were married and in a rush to get home to their families. Because of this, Claudius banned marriages and engagements, but Valentine refused to give up his Christian beliefs and married couples in secrecy. Claudius eventually became aware of Valentine's actions and commanded that he be put to death. Valentine was stoned and beheaded and died on February 14, about 270 A.D.

Valentine's Day Gifts

Valentine's Day symbols

One of the most famous symbols of love, especially on Valentine's Day, is that of Cupid, the son of Aphrodite/Venus, (the goddess of love) and Ares/Mars. In ancient Greece, Cupid stands for "Eros" - god of love. He is usually portrayed as a young boy, flying through the air with wings and of course, his bow and arrow, which are used to pierce the hearts of two people, resulting in love.

The story that associates Cupid and love stems from the jealousy that Cupid's mother Venus possessed. Venus was extremely jealous of Psyche's (a mortal maiden) beauty and, therefore, instructed Cupid to punish her by forcing her to fall in love with a repulsive man. Cupid went and searched for Psyche and once he found her, against the wishes of his mother, ended up falling in love with her rather than punishing her. They eventually became husband and wife and Cupid would come to visit her only at night. Cupid requested that Psyche never look at him but once her jealous sisters convinced her to do so, Cupid punished her by leaving and taking their castle and gardens with him.

Psyche began to search for her love and, in the process, encountered Venus? temple. Because her feelings of hatred for Psyche were so strong, Venus gave her a variety of tasks to perform, each one more difficult than the last. Her last mission was to go to the underworld and steal some of Proserpine's beauty (the wife of Pluto) and place it inside the box that was given to her by Venus. Venus warned her not to open the box, but her command was quickly forgotten and Psyche found herself opening it. In it, she did not find beauty, but rather, a deadly sleep. Cupid found her motionless on the ground and took the sleep from her body and placed it back in the box. Both Cupid and Venus forgave her. The gods were so impressed with Psyche's love for Cupid that they made her a god and granted her immortality.

Another popular symbol of Valentine's Day is the rose. According to some legends, Venus' favorite flower was the red rose. Roses symbolize love and beauty and the color red represents romance, passion, and warmth. Pink roses stand for appreciation, grace and elegance, while white signifies purity, unity and loyalty.

History of Valentines and Valentine Greeting Cards

Although it is difficult to know when, where, and by whom the very first valentine was written, we do know that Margery Brew is a very likely candidate. In 1477 she wrote this love poem to a man named John Paston:

"Unto my right well-beloved Valentine John Paston, squire, be this bill delivered.

Right reverent and worshipful and my right well-beloved valentine, I recommend me unto you full heartedly, desiring to hear of your welfare, which I beseech Almighty God long for to preserve unto his pleasure and your hearts desire.

And if it pleases you to hear of my welfare, I am not in good health of body nor of heart, nor shall I be till I hear from you.

For there knows no creature what pain that I endure, And even on the pain of death I would reveal no more.

And my lady my mother hath laboured the matter to my father full diligently, but she can no more get than you already know of, for which God knoweth I am full sorry.

But if you love me, as I trust verily that you do, you will not leave me therefore.

For even if you had not half the livelihood that you have, for to do the greatest labour that any woman alive might, I would not forsake you.

Love you truly

And if you command me to keep me true wherever I go, indeed I will do all my might you to love and never anyone else.

And if my friends say that I do amiss, they shall not stop me from doing so.

My heart me bids evermore to love you truly over all earthly things.

And if they be never so angry, I trust it shall be better in time coming.

No more to you at this time, but the Holy Trinity have you in keeping.

And I beseech you that this bill be not seen by any non earthly creature save only yourself.

And this letter was written at Topcroft with full heavy heart.

Be your own Margery Brews."


Another "first" valentine was written by Charles, Duke of Orleans in 1415 A.D. While he was imprisoned in the Tower of London after the battle of Agincourt in 1415, he sent love poems such as this to his wife in France:

"Wilt thou be mine? Dear love, reply
Sweetly consent, or else deny;
Whisper softly, none shall know,
Wilt thou be mine, love? Aye or no?"

Poems and love letters are synonymous with the celebration of Valentine's Day. Although Margery Brew and Charles both wrote letters of love as early as the 1400's, (around the same time that Europe began sending handmade valentine cards), it took as long as 400 years until cards became popular in the United States due to the constant changing and upgrading of printing machines and other technology. As a result, cards then became more reasonably priced and the industry began to flourish. Esther Howland from Massachusetts was the first regular publisher of valentines in 1849 and Louis Prang started the first card industry in the U.S. in 1856.