St. Valentine’s Day has a rich and interesting history. February 14 is the date we celebrate because of a belief in the middle ages that birds began to pair halfway through the second month of the year. Given this belief, the date became associated with love, and was designated as a special day for lovers to send notes and small gifts to each other.
But who was Saint Valentine and how did he become associated with this ancient ritual?
The Church recognizes at least three martyred saints named Valentine or Valentinus. The St. Valentine most likely to be related to the holiday however was a priest who served during the third century in Rome.
When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young couples in secret. When Valentine's actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death.
Other stories suggest that Valentine may have been killed for attempting to help Christians escape harsh Roman prisons where they were beaten and tortured. According to one legend, Valentine actually sent the first ‘valentine’ greeting himself. While in prison, it is believed that Valentine fell in love with a young girl who visited him during his confinement. Before his death, it is alleged that he wrote her a letter, which he signed 'From your Valentine,' an expression that is still in use today.
Another legend says that while awaiting his execution, Valentinus restored the sight of his jailer’s blind daughter.
Although the truth behind the Valentine legends is murky, the stories certainly emphasize his appeal as a sympathetic, heroic, and romantic figure. It's no surprise that by the Middle Ages, Valentine was one of the most popular saints in England and France.
St. Valentine is the Patron Saint of affianced couples, bee keepers, epilepsy, fainting, greetings, happy marriages, love, lovers, plague, travelers, and young people. That’s quite a range!
The oldest existing valentine was written in 1415. Charles, Duke of Orleans wrote a poem to his wife from the Tower of London, where he was imprisoned after being captured during the Battle of Agincourt.
Americans began exchanging hand-made valentines in the early 1700s. There were many different types of handmade valentines, including cards in which the first lines spelled out the loved one's name, lacy cutout shapes, cards made by pricking tiny holes to create the look of lace, rebus messages in which pictures take the place of some of the words, and ornate valentines using lettering in the style of illuminated manuscripts.
Many other traditions became attached to St. Valentine’s Day as the years passed, such as pinning bay leaves to your pillow on Valentine’s Eve so that you would dream of your future mate.
Today the holiday has become super commercialized, and couples feel pressured to create an impossibly perfect romantic experience. If you are in a relationship, why not focus on the sacrificial love demonstrated by St. Valentine legends? Maybe work together in an act of service for those who are oppressed, or send anonymous cards to people you know are lonely. Wouldn't that be a better way to honor a saint than angsting about how large a box of chocolates to buy this year?
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