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A Brief History of Valentine's Day

The Roots of Our Annual Celebration of all Things Love

February is the month of love here in the U.S., thanks to our celebrations of Valentine’s Day on Feb. 14. While the roots of this holiday are shrouded in lore and mystery, it contains vestiges of both Christian and ancient Roman traditions. 

One legend of Valentine’s Day says it was created more than 1,500 years ago in Europe to mark the martyrdom of Saint Valentine, who was killed by a Roman emperor because Valentine refused the emperor's order banning young men from marrying. 

So who was Saint Valentine, and how did he become associated with this ancient rite of recognizing loved ones in our lives?

Throughout the ages, the Catholic Church recognized at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom were martyred. One legend says Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome when Emperor Claudius II outlawed marriage for single men because he needed them in his armies. 

Valentine felt the edict was unjust and he defied Claudius by continuing to perform secret marriages for young lovers. When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered his execution. 

Another legend says it was Saint Valentine of Terni, a bishop, who was the true namesake of the holiday and that he was also beheaded by the Roman emperor. 

Still other stories suggest that Valentine was a priest who was killed for helping Christians escape harsh Roman prisons, where they were often beaten and tortured. One legend holds that while he was imprisoned for his crimes, Valentine actually sent the first “valentine” himself after he fell in love with a young girl — possibly his jailor’s daughter — who visited him during his confinement. Before his death, the legend goes, he wrote her a letter signed “From your Valentine,” an expression still in use today.

Another theory about Valentine’s Day holds that like many of our Christian celebrations it probably grew out of a pagan ritual which the early Catholic Church incorporated as a way to bring pagan followers into Catholicism. The church, the legend goes, decided to recognize a “St. Valentine’s feast day”  in the middle of February to coincide with the pagan celebration of Lupercalia. Celebrated at the ides of February, or Feb. 15, Lupercalia was a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, as well as to the Roman founders Romulus and Remus.

"Over the years we’ve celebrated the romantic notion behind Saint Valentine’s sacrifice by trading simple cards of affection or giving our loved ones chocolates, romantic cards, flowers and even proposals of marriage," the website History.com states. “Although the truth behind the Valentine legends is murky, the stories all emphasize his appeal as a sympathetic, heroic and—most importantly—romantic figure, By the Middle Ages, perhaps thanks to this reputation, Valentine would become one of the most popular saints in England and France.”

Whatever the true story is behind it, (Maybe we just set aside Feb. 14 as a day of celebration as a break from cold and dreary weather!), Valentine’s Day has become a major cultural celebration in the U.S. of all things associated with romantic love, complete with roses, chocolates and even diamonds! 

“Although the truth behind the Valentine legends is murky, the stories all emphasize his appeal as a sympathetic, heroic and—most importantly—romantic figure,”

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