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History of Valentine's Day

When it comes to romance, few days can top Valentine’s Day, a holiday that has inspired  a worldwide celebration of love throughout the ages.

How Did Valentine's Day Begin?

Valentine’s Day originally honored Saint Valentine – but who, exactly, is this saint? Historically, it is known that three or more men named Valentine were martyred for their Christian beliefs and later named saints by the Catholic Church.

One of the most popular St. Valentine stories tells of a Roman priest in the early days of Christianity. Valentine served under Emperor Claudius, who believed that single men made better soldiers than those who were married and had families. To enforce this belief, Claudius passed a law banning all young soldiers from marrying. Appalled at the law, Valentine secretly continued to wed young couples. He was imprisoned for his lawlessness and eventually beheaded. 

Why Do We Send Valentine Cards?

Another story of the saint explains the origin of the valentine card. It’s said that while Valentine was imprisoned he fell in love - possibly with the jailer’s daughter. To communicate with her, he pricked messages into heart-shaped leaves plucked from a plant outside the window of his cell. Signed “from your Valentine,” these messages form the basis of the Valentine’s Day cards we exchange today.

Medieval poet Geoffrey Chaucer is generally credited with being the first to connect St. Valentine’s Day with romantic love, essentially inventing Valentine’s Day. The author penned the first modern valentine, a poem for his wife, in the late 1300s. Back then, “valentine” was a common term for one’s sweetheart.

While handmade valentine cards have always been prized, 19th century entrepreneurs capitalized on the notion of pre-made cards marketed toward less artistic and poetic individuals. One of the earliest American valentine card producers was Esther Howland, a 20-year-old from Worcester, Massachusetts, whose father owned a large stationery company. She convinced him to let her create valentine cards modeled on fancy cards typically imported from Britain. Her lacy and sentimental creations were a huge hit. 

Today, more than one billion valentine cards are exchanged each year.

Why Do We Celebrate Valentine’s Day on February 14?

Valentine’s Day is one of several Christian holidays timed near pagan celebrations. The church effectively absorbed and replaced older customs with Christian feast days.

Valentine’s Day coincides closely with the mid February Roman holiday of Lupercalia, a fertility festival. Other ancient mid-winter holidays include Imbolc, a Celtic holiday that celebrates fertility and rebirth. In addition, Medieval folklore claimed that birds chose their mates in February. Thus, the month became associated with love, mating and the approach of spring. 

Valentine's Day Traditions

Traditional Valentine’s Day images include hearts, cupids and roses. Red and pink, the most popular colors associated with Valentine’s Day, are incorporated into many Valentine’s Day cards and decorations. 

Many people like to decorate for Valentine’s Day. You can find homes decked with pink, red and white lights and heart-shaped wreaths. Schoolrooms, stores, nursing homes and business offices may sport paper hearts, decorations, streamers, table linens and more. 

Although jewelers would have you believe differently, diamonds are not the most popular Valentine’s Day gift. According to Statista, candy is the most popular Valentine’s Day gift, followed by greeting cards (commonly called ‘valentines’), flowers, romantic dinners and wine. Jewelry is favored by only 10 percent of Valentine’s Day gift-givers. 

A Low-Pressure Holiday

Unlike Christmas, when elaborate or expensive gifts are common, there is often less pressure to “go big” on Valentine’s Day. A simple card and box of candy, or a loving gesture, are enough to mark the holiday. 

So go ahead - give your favorite person a kiss and a card and wish them a Happy Valentine’s Day!

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