A Brief History of Valentine’s Day



Who Was Saint Valentine?

Saint Valentine, officially known as St. Valentine of Rome, is a third-century Roman saint widely associated with courtly love. He is the patron saint of affianced couples, engaged couples, epilepsy, happy marriages, love and young people. St. Valentine is often represented in pictures with birds and roses and his feast day is celebrated on February 14th by the Roman Catholic Church.

Not much of his life is known but many legends are attributed to him. As is the case with those who follow the way of the cross, his faith was put to the test after being arrested for trying to convert people to Christianity. He was sent to Rome under Emperor Claudius II. The story is told that he was imprisoned for marrying Christian couples who were being persecuted by Claudius II.


Mural of St. Valentine

The war-bent emperor was trying to enlist all able bodied young men for a campaign of war on the frontlines. Many Roman men were unwilling to go because they were married and had children. Claudius II banned marriage to discourage this resistance. Valentine’s refusal to cease marriage ceremonies led to his martyrdom February, 14 273 AD.

A variation of this tale includes a quaint and likely untrue incident while he was awaiting sentencing for his refusal to follow the emperors orders. While in jail, Valentine healed a jailers blind daughter and on the day of his execution, he left her a note signed “your Valentine”.

Historical accounts claim that Valentine’s Day was created to overtake the Roman pagan holiday of Lupercalia, which took place annually on February 15 on the Roman calendar. When the holiday became associated with romance is not widely agreed upon. Whoever he was, Valentine did really exist, because archaeologists have unearthed a Roman catacomb and an ancient church dedicated to St. Valentine. In 496 AD Pope Gelasius marked February 14th as a celebration in honor of his martyrdom.

Valentine Ad 2

A mid-century advertisement for Whitman’s Chocolates. A traditional Valentine’s Day gift.

Origins of the Modern Valentine’s Day

The earliest description of February 14 as an annual celebration of love appears in the Charter of the Court of Love. Charles VI of France commissioned a celebration on the day that allowed members of the royal court to participate in games and festivities that included poetry competitions, dancing, and advice to lovers.

Victorian-age valentine card assembly line.

Valentine’s Day wasn’t observed as a gift exchanging holiday until the late 18th century. In 1797, a British publisher issued The Young Man’s Valentine Writer–a collection of sentimental verses for the young lover who struggled to compose his own. By the early-1800s, paper Valentine’s were widely sold and manufactured in paper card factories. Early cards were illustrated by factory workers who painted romantic images on the cards themselves.

Esther Howland Card

An Esther Howland valentine card. Late 1800s.

There was no greater influence on the American valentine industry than Esther Howland of Worcester, Massachusetts (1828-1904), a pioneer in the greeting card industry. After receiving her first paper valentine in 1847 she became fascinated with the idea of making the cards, employing friends to assist her in making batches of the cards by hand. She took her first advertisement out in a Worcester paper, The Daily Spy, on Feb. 5, 1850.

Her idea turned out to be a profitable one–roughly $100,000 of annual income. She sold her company in 1881 to George C. Whitney Company, an American card manufacturer who mastered the art of verse in valentine cards.

Valentine’s Day: A Retailer’s Dream

Today, the Valentine’s Day holiday is celebrated by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. What was once just another feast day for a martyred saint has since become a billion dollar industry. In 2016, $19.7 billion was spent on valentine gifts. Americans spend more money on valentine’s cards than any other holiday, second only to Christmas. According to The Balance, those who are celebrating are spending $146.84 each with men being the biggest spenders at $196.39 per man. Chain-restaurants offer discounted meals for couples on the holiday. Clothing stores and jewelers also provide promotional deals for this day as well. Everyone gets in on the action.

The consumerism of the holiday has sapped the spontaneity out of gift-giving in personal relationships by placing the burden on those in a relationship to spend money each other on a specific day of the year. When it comes to exchanging tokens of gratitude with significant others, there should be a sincere reason for the gift. Sometimes that day falls on February 14, sometimes it doesn’t. Either way, be deliberate with your purchases this year…better yet, make a gift by hand. The effort will be appreciated and if it isn’t, you have the wrong partner!

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