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The history of Valentine’s Day – – and the story of its patron saint – – is shrouded in mystery and contains vestiges of both Christian and ancient Roman tradition.  But who was Saint Valentine, and how did he become associated with February, the month of romance?  The Catholic Church recognizes at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom were martyred.

The Valentines honored on February 14 are Valentine of Rome and Valentine of Terni.  Valentine of Rome was a priest in Rome who was martyred about AD 269 and was buried on the Via Flaminia.   His relics are at the Church of Saint Praxed in Rome, and at Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church in Dublin, Ireland.

Valentine of Terni became Bishop of Interamna (modern Terni) about AD 197 and is said to have been martyred during the persecution under the Roman Emperor, Aurelian.  He is also buried on the Via Flaminia, but in a different location than Valentine of Rome.  His relics are at the Basilica of Saint Valentine in Terni (Basilica di San Valentino).

A third saint named Valentine was also mentioned in early martyrologies under date of February 14.  He was martyred in Africa with a number of companions, but nothing more is known about him.

No romantic elements are present in the original early medieval biographies of these martyrs.  By the time a Saint Valentine became linked to romance in the 14th century, distinctions between Valentine of Rome and Valentine of Terni were utterly lost.

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, an imprisoned Valentine actually sent the first “valentine” greeting himself after he fell in love with a young girl – – possibly his jailor’s daughter – – who visited him during his confinement.  Before his death, it is alleged that he wrote her a letter signed “From your Valentine”, an expression that is still in use today.  Although the truth behind the Valentine legends is murky, the stories all emphasize his appeal as a sympathetic, heroic and – – most importantly – – romantic figure.

At the end of the 5th century, Pope Gelasius declared February 14 St. Valentine’s Day.  It was not until much later, however, that the day became definitively associated with love.  Valentine greetings were popular as far back as the Middle Ages, though written Valentine’s didn’t begin to appear until after 1400.  The oldest known valentine still in existence today was a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London.

By the middle of the 18th century, it was common for friends and lovers of all social classes to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes, and by 1900 printed cards began to replace written letters due to improvements in printing technology.  Ready-made cards were an easy way for people to express their emotions in a time when direct expression of one’s feelings was discouraged.

Americans began exchanging hand-made valentines in the early 1700s.  In the 1840s, Esther A. Howland began selling the first mass produced valentines in America.  Howland, known as the “Mother of the Valentine”, made elaborate creations with real lace, ribbons and colorful pictures known as “scrap”.  Today, according to the Greeting Card Association, an estimated 1 billion Valentine’s Day cards are sent each year, making Valentine’s Day the second largest card-sending holiday of the year.  (An estimated 2.6 billion cards are sent for Christmas). Women purchase approximately 85 percent of all valentines.

Here are some interesting Valentine’s Day facts:

  • 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 printed onto their sleeves for one week for everyone to see.  This was the origin of the expression “to wear your heart on your sleeve”.
  • Casanova, well known as “The World’s Greatest Lover”, ate chocolate to make him virile.
  • 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.
  • More than 35 million heart shaped boxes of chocolate will be sold for Valentine’s Day.
  • The red rose was the favorite flower of Venus, the Roman goddess of love.
  • Red roses are considered the flower of love because the color red stands for strong romantic feelings.
  • 189 million stems of roses are sold in the U.S. on Valentine’s Day.
  • Approximately 110 million roses, mostly red, will be sold and delivered within the three-day Valentine’s Day time period.
  • Teachers will receive the most Valentine’s Day cards, followed by children, mothers, wives, sweethearts and pets.
  • In addition to the United States, Valentine’s Day is celebrated in Canada, Mexico, United Kingdom, France, Australia, Denmark, and Italy.
  • 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.

The most popular way of celebrating Valentine’s Day is to go for a romantic date with your sweetheart.  One can find restaurants thronged by lovers holding hands and expressing love.  So for those of you who choose to become engaged or married on this most romantic of holidays, I provide one cautionary message, “Marriage is grand, but divorce is a hundred grand…”

Just kidding, Happy Valentine’s Day!