It’s that mushy-gushy time of year where flowers, chocolate, over-sized teddy bears and Hallmark cards are flying off the shelves and into the hands of couples, families and friends who want to show how much they care.
However, Valentine’s Day was not originally intended to be a celebration of love and romance. In fact, this holiday was a fusion of Christian and ancient Roman traditions that originated from several interpretations of the legend of Saint Valentine.
The version of the legend that is most widely accepted by historians claims St. Valentine was a priest of the Catholic Church in Rome during the 3rd century.
Around 270 A.D., Emperor Claudius II outlawed marriage for all young men in Rome. He decided single men made better soldiers than those who had wives and children to come home to.
Valentine believed the ban on marriage to be unjust, so he went against the emperor’s decree and secretly continued to perform marriages. Eventually Claudius II discovered Valentine and had him arrested.
Claudius II was, at first, impressed by Valentine’s conviction and dignity, but he was greatly angered by the priest’s continued refusal to obey the decree and reluctance to follow the Roman gods. In his rage, the emperor sentenced Valentine to death.
While in prison awaiting his execution, Valentine’s jailer, Asterius, brought his blind daughter to the priest, and Valentine restored her sight through his strong faith. Valentine and Asterius’ daughter became close friends during his imprisonment, and she became greatly distressed over his upcoming execution.
It is said that before Valentine was executed, he wrote a farewell letter to the jailer’s daughter and signed it “from your Valentine.” Historians recognize the relationship between the priest and Asterius’ daughter as one of “agape” love, or Christian love, not of “eros” love, or passionate love.
Valentine is believed to have been executed on Feb. 14, 270 A.D., and he is acknowledged as a martyr for refusing to renounce his faith.
At the end of the 5th century, Pope Gelasius declared Feb. 14 to be St. Valentine’s Day to commemorate the life and martyrdom of Valentine.
It was not until the 14th century that St. Valentine’s Day was first associated with love and romance because of the common belief of birds’ mating season beginning around mid February in France and England.
Valentine greetings became popular during the Middle Ages, but Valentine love notes were not written until the fifteenth century.
The earliest known valentine was written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife who was imprisoned in the Tower of London at the time. Today, the Valentine is on display in the British Museum.
Around the 18th century it became common for lovers and friends to exchange gifts to express affection.
According to the Greeting Card Association, Valentine’s Day is the second largest card sending holiday, with about one billion cards sold every year. Around 85 percent are purchased by women.
In the midst of all the love and romance this holiday brings for many, consider that the original Valentine’s Day was actually not so “happy” at all.
Emily Vaartstra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org