Each February 14th, thousands of greeting cards and gifts are exchanged in the name of St. Valentine. But who is this enigmatic saint and why do we celebrate in his honor? Valentine’s Day, as we now know it, contains evidence of both Christian and ancient Roman tradition.
So, who was Saint Valentine and why is he so closely associated with love and passion? What, exactly, are the origins of Valentine’s Day? Today, the Catholic Church honors three different martyred saints named Valentine or Valentinus.
According to one legend, Valentine was a Roman priest during the third century. Emperor Claudius II outlawed marriage for young men when he decided that single men made better soldiers. Valentine, as legend goes, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young couples in secret. He was considered a hero by the soldiers and their grateful wives. Unfortunately, he was later put to death for his romantic crimes.
Our traditional Valentine cards also apparently came from this particular Roman Valentine. While Valentine was in prison awaiting his death, his jailer, Asterius ,requested that he heal his daughter. According to legend, through his faith he miraculously mended the sight of Asterius’ daughter. Just before his execution, he asked for writing utensils from his jailer, and signed a goodbye note to her “From Your Valentine,” a phrase that has been alive ever since.
Eventually, February 14 became the date for exchanging love messages and St. Valentine became the patron saint of lovers. The date was marked by sending cards, notes and simple gifts such as flowers or candy. In America, school children exchange simple cards and candies at school.
People from all over the world have different traditions for celebrating Valentine’s Day. In Wales, wooden love spoons were carved and given as gifts on February 14th. Hearts, keys and keyholes were favorite decorations on the spoons. The decoration meant, “You unlock my heart!”
In the Middle Ages, young men and women drew names from a bowl to see who their valentines would be. They would wear these names on their sleeves for one week. To wear your heart on your sleeve now implies that others can easily look at you and tell how you are feeling.
Commercial valentines were introduced in the 1800’s and have since become the standard for sending Valentine’s Day love messages. The town of Loveland, Colorado, does a large post office business around February 14, as does the town of Eros, Louisiana. No matter where you live, Valentine’s Day is considered a day of love all over the world.