For some, Valentine’s Day is a special opportunity to celebrate their love for someone special. For others, it’s a good excuse to indulge in some chocolate. Here are some interesting facts about the origin of Valentine’s Day and how we celebrate it today:
The Legends of Valentine
Today, the Catholic Church recognizes at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom were martyred. Which martyr is the “real” St. Valentine who is celebrated on February 14 is subject to controversy.
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One legend contends that Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome when the emperor outlawed marriage for young men so that they would be better soldiers. Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret which led to his death when his actions were discovered.
Other stories suggest that Valentine may have been killed for attempting to help Christians escape harsh Roman prisons where they were often beaten and tortured.
According to one legend, he actually sent the first “valentine” to a girl with whom he’d fallen in love and signed it “From your Valentine.”
Although the truth behind the Valentine legends is murky, the stories certainly emphasize his appeal as a sympathetic, heroic, and, most importantly, romantic figure. It’s no surprise that by the Middle Ages, Valentine was one of the most popular saints in England and France.
Valentine’s Day Celebrations
While some believe that Valentine’s Day is celebrated in the middle of February to commemorate the anniversary of Valentine’s death or burial, others claim that the Christian church may have decided to celebrate Valentine’s feast day in the middle of February in an effort to “christianize” celebrations of the pagan Lupercalia festival. The festival of fertility was dedicated to the Roman god of agriculture, Faunus, and the Roman founders, Romulus and Remus.
To begin the festival, members of the Luperci, an order of Roman priests, would gather at the sacred cave where the infants Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were believed to have been cared for by a she-wolf or lupa. The priests would then sacrifice a goat, for fertility, and a dog, for purification.
The boys then sliced the goat’s hide into strips, dipped them in the sacrificial blood and took to the streets, gently slapping both women and fields of crops with the goathide strips. Far from being fearful, Roman women welcomed being touched with the hides because it was believed the strips would make them more fertile in the coming year. Later in the day, according to legend, all the young women in the city would place their names in a big urn. The city’s bachelors would then each choose a name out of the urn and become paired for the year with his chosen woman. These matches often ended in marriage.
Pope Gelasius declared February 14 St. Valentine’s Day at the end of the 5th century. Later, during the Middle Ages, it was commonly believed in France and England that February 14 was the beginning of birds’ mating season, which added to the idea that the middle of February — Valentine’s Day — should be a day for romance.
The Earliest Valentines
The oldest known valentine still in existence today was a poem written by Charles, Duke of Orleans to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt. The greeting, which was written in 1415, is part of the manuscript collection of the British Library in London, England. Several years later, it is believed that King Henry V hired a writer named John Lydgate to compose a valentine note to Catherine of Valois.
- 141 million Valentine’s Day cards are exchanged annually, making Valentine’s Day the second-most popular greeting-card-giving occasion. (This total excludes packaged kids valentines for classroom exchanges.)
- More than 35 million heart-shaped boxes of chocolate will be sold for Valentine’s Day.
- Over $1 billion worth of chocolate is purchased for Valentine’s Day in the U.S.
- 189 million stems of roses are sold in the U.S. on Valentine’s Day.
- 15% of U.S. women send themselves flowers on Valentine’s Day.
- About 3% of pet owners will give Valentine’s Day gifts to their pets.
- Many believe the ‘X’ symbol became synonymous with the kiss in medieval times. People who couldn’t write their names signed in front of a witness with an ‘X.’ The ‘X’ was then kissed to show their sincerity.
- In the Middle Ages, young men and women drew names from a bowl to see who would be their Valentine. They would wear this name pinned onto their sleeves for one week for everyone to see. This was the origin of the expression “to wear your heart on your sleeve.”
- The origin of the shape of the heart (♥) is disputed. Some say that it is a poor attempt to draw a real heart and others draw similarities between its shape and other symbols of reproduction. One view is that it is based on the shape of the seedpod of an extinct plant (silphium) that was primarily used for spice in food and occasionally as a contraceptive.
- The most fantastic gift of love is the Taj Mahal in India. It was built by Mughal Emperor Shahjahan as a memorial to his wife.
- Every Valentine’s Day, the Italian city of Verona, where Shakespeare’s lovers Romeo and Juliet lived, receives about 1,000 letters addressed to Juliet.
- Physicians of the 1800’s commonly advised their patients to eat chocolate to calm their pining for lost love.
- Richard Cadbury produced the first box of chocolates for Valentine’s Day in the late 1800’s.
- In Japan, women are expected to give chocolate and other gifts to men on Valentine’s Day. This tradition was started as a marketing campaign by Japanese chocolate companies. Men are not off the hook, unfortunately. They are expected to return the favor on March 14th, commonly known as White Day.
- In addition to the United States, Valentine’s Day is celebrated in Canada, Mexico, United Kingdom, France, Australia, Denmark, and Italy.
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