St. Valentine’s Day
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Valentine’s Day, on February 14th, is the traditional day on which lovers in the West let each other know about their love. Originally an ancient Catholic Church feast day in honor of Saint Valentine, it probably became associated with romantic love in the Middle Ages.
The day is most closely associated with the mutual exchange of love notes in the form of “valentines”, a practice that dates back to the 14th century in Europe. Modern symbols of the day include the heart-shaped outline and the figure of the winged Cupid. Starting in the 20th century, the practice of hand writing notes has largely given way to the exchange of mass-produced greeting cards. The Greeting Card Association estimates that world-wide approximately one billion valentine cards are sent each year, making the day the second largest card-sending holiday of the year behind Christmas. The association also estimates that women purchase approximately 85 percent of all valentines.
In the United States in the second half of the 20th century, the practice of exchanging cards has been extended to include the giving of all manner gifts, in a heterosexual relationship usually from the the man to the woman. Such gifts typically include roses and chocolate. Starting in the 1980s, the diamond industry began to promote Valentine’s day as occasion for the giving of fine jewelry.
A dinner date on Valentine’s Day is often regarded as indicating that a dating couple are involved in a serious relationship.
In the United States the day has come to be associated as well with a generic Platonic greeting of “Happy Valentine’s”, which may be said by men to their female friends, but rarely to other male friends.
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The association of the middle of February with love and fertility dates to Ancient times. In the calendar of Ancient Athens, the period between mid January and mid February was the month of Gamelion, which was dedicated to the sacred marriage of Zeus and Hera.
In Ancient Rome, the day of February 15 was Lupercalia, the festival of Lupercus, the god of fertility, who was represented as half-naked and dressed in goat skins. As part of the purification ritual, the priests of Lupercus would sacrifice goats to the god, and after drinking wine, they would run through the streets of Rome holding pieces of the goat skin above their heads, touching anyone they met. Young women especially would come forth voluntarily for the occassion, in the belief that being so touched would render them fruitful and bring easy childbirth.
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia (1908), at least three different Saints Valentine, all of them martyrs, are mentioned in the early martyrologies under the date of February 14th:
- a priest in Rome – suffered martyrdom in the second half of the 3rd century and buried on the Via Flaminia.
- a bishop of Intermamna (modern Terni) – also suffered matyrdom in the second half of the 3rd century and buried on the Via Flaminia, but in a different location than the priest.
- a martyr in Africa, about whom little else is known.
The connection between St. Valentine and romantic love is not mentioned in any early histories and is regarded by historians as purely a matter of legend (see below). The feast of St. Valentine was first declared to be on February 14 by Pope Gelasius I around 498. There is a widespread legend that he created the day to counter the practice held on Lupercalia of young men and women pairing off as lovers by drawing their names out of an urn, but this practice is not attested in any sources from that era.
In the 19th century, relics of St. Valentine were donated by Pope Gregory XVI to the Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church in Dublin, Ireland, which has become a popular place of pilgrimage on February 14.
In 1969, as part of a larger effort to pare down the number of saint days of purely legendary origin, the Church removed St. Valentine’s Day as an official holiday from its calendar.
The first recorded association of St. Valentine’s Day with romantic love was in the 14th century in England and France, where it was believed that February 14 was the day on which birds paired off to mate. This belief is mentioned in the writings of Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century, who wrote in the Parlement of Foules that
- For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day
- Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate
It was common during that era for lovers to exchange notes on this day and to call each other their “Valentines”. It is probable that many of the legends about St. Valentine were invented during this period. Among the legends are ones that assert that:
- On the evening before St. Valentine was to be martyred for being a Christian, he passed a love note to his jailer’s daughter which read “From Your Valentine”.
- During a ban on marriages of Roman soldiers by the Emperor Claudius II, St. Valentine secretly helped arrange marriages.
In most versions of these legends, February 14 is the date associated with his martyrdom.
Valentine’s Day was probably imported into North America in the 18th century with settlers from Great Britain. In the United States, the first mass-produced valentines were produced and sold in the 1840s by Esther A. Howland.
See also: Chinese Valentine’s Day, Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre
- Catholic Encylopedia entry on St. Valentine.
- Smith’s Dictionary (1875) entry on Lupercalia.
- Bryn Mawr Classical Review on Gamelion.
- History Channel on St. Valentine’s Day Greeting Card Purchases