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A Quick History of Valentine’s Day

As if you needed reminding, Valentine’s Day is here again. But what do roses, chocolates in heart-shaped boxes and stuffed teddy bears have to do with Saint Valentine, the patron saint who lends his name to the annual love fest?

Well, it’s kind of a long story, so we’ll make it quick.

In ancient Rome, the month of February symbolized the beginning of spring and was the time of the year when purification and fertility rites were performed. However, exactly who St. Valentine is much more mysterious. In fact, today the Catholic Church recognizes at least three saints who went by the name of Valentine (or “Valentinus”) who may or may not be tied to the holiday as we know it.

According to one tale, a Saint Valentine who lived during the reign of Claudius II was executed after it was discovered that he was performing marriages clandestinely. (At that time it was illegal for men to wed, because Claudius felt unmarried men made the best soldiers for his army.) Another legend contends that St. Valentine sent the original valentine when he sent a love letter while in prison awaiting execution.

Whatever the story—and we’ll probably never know—Valentine was honored at festivals and feasts throughout ancient Rome. At the close of one festival that fell on the 14th, men and women were paired by a lottery system and sent off to live together for one year. Surprisingly, or maybe not, many of these unions resulted in marriage.

Fast forward to the fifteenth century. In England and France, popular belief dictated that birds mate on the 14th of February. Historians and the literati make the connection between this and the ancient practices of Rome, and before you know it, Valentine’s Day was resurrected. Combine that with society’s penchant for sending handwritten love notes, and much later, printed cards, and pretty soon we were all getting and receiving Valentine’s Day greetings.