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History of St. Valentine's Day


Valentine or Valentinus, is the name of at least three martyred saints. The most celebrated are the two martyrs whose festivals fall on February 14, the one, a Roman priest, the other, bishop of Terni. It would appear from the legends that both lived during the reign of the Emperor Claudius (Gothicus); that both died on the same day; and that both were buried on the Via Flaminia, but at different distances from Rome. A third was a martyr in the Roman province of North Africa about whom little is known. It seems that the first celebration of the feast of St. Valentine was declared to be on February 14 by Pope Gelasius I in 496. Many authorities believe that the lovers’ festival associated with St. Valentine’s day comes from the belief that this is the day in spring when birds begin their mating. There is another view held, however.

In the days of early Rome a great festival was held every February called Lupercalia, held in honor of a god named Lupercus. During the founding days of Rome the city was surrounded by an immense wilderness in which were great hordes of wolves. The Romans thought they must have a god to watch over and protect the shepherds with their flocks, so they called this god Lupercus, from the Latin word, lupus, a wolf. One of the amusements on this festival day was the placing of young women’s names in a box to be drawn out by the young men. Each young man accepted the girl whose name he drew, as his lady love. Whether the customs of Lupercalia are perpetuated in Valentine’s Day remain unknown.

In any event, customs have changed throughout the years, during Christian times the priests put the names of saints and martyrs into the boxes to be drawn out. The name that was drawn out was called one’s “valentine” and the holy life of that person was to be imitated throughout the year. It was at one time the custom in England for people to call out “Good morning, ’tis St. Valentine’s Day”, and the one who succeeded in saying this first expected a present from the one to whom it was said, making things pretty lively on St. Valentine’s Day.

Paper valentines date back to the 1500’s but it took the enterprise of America to make a buck at it. Esther A. Holland, who produced one of the first American commercial Valentines in the 1840’s sold $5,000 worth – when $5,000 was a LOT of money – in the first year.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

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