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The Grim Origins of Valentine's Day: Redux

In ancient Rome, men gave women wallops, not greeting cards.

This story was first published in Patch on .

Romantics may be surprised to learn that the originator of the valentine tradition was not a greeting card company, but a prisoner about to be beheaded, according to legend.

The Catholic Church endowed the status of martyr to three different men named Valentine, all listed in martyrologies, a catalogue of saints arranged in order of feast day or anniversary, under Feb. 14, according to History.com.

Citing text found in a Roman catacomb, the Church holds that Valentine of Rome was a Roman priest who was executed on his namesake day, around 269 A.D., according to Catholic.org.

At that time, the emperor Claudius Gothicus, known as Claudius the Cruel, had difficulty recruiting soldiers for his unpopular military campaigns. Blaming the romantic bonds of matrimony and family life for the low enlistment, he abolished marriage.

Valentine had been caught by Claudius illegally marrying couples, and was arrested. Before being clubbed, stoned and decapitated, Valentine fell in love with a girl thought to be the daughter of his jailer, according to History.com.

The night before his grisly death, the priest sent his love a letter, signing it “From your Valentine.” According to some versions of the story, he miraculously healed his love of her blindness.

In death, Valentine, known as St. Valentine, is revered by Catholics.  He is the patron saint of young people, epilepsy, travelers, bee keepers, engaged couples and happy marriages, according to Catholic.org. He is paired with roses and birds in visual depictions.

A perhaps less romantic origin of the holiday comes from Roman tradition itself.  Feb. 15 was the day the ancient holiday of Lupercalla, a fertility festival, was celebrated.

Roman priests would sacrifice a goat for fertility. Roman boys would then soak strips made of the goat’s hide into blood, and slap women with them. Instead of being scandalized, the women welcomed the lash, believing the ritual made them fertile.

After being smacked by the blood dipped hide, the ladies would pool their names into an urn, to be drawn upon by the men would then be paired with them for the coming year.

The lottery was criminalized after Christianity became the reigning faith. Valentine’s Day, to be observed on Feb. 14, was declared a Christian observance around 498 A.D. by pope Gelasius. Some believe the proximity in observance of the two holidays was an attempt by the church to co-opt the holiday.

In parity of legend and history, while the first valentine may have been sent from a Roman prison, the oldest known valentine still in existence was sent from an English one. A prisoner in the Tower of London, Charles, Duke of Orleans penned a poem for his wife in 1415, after being captured during the Battle of Agincourt.

Valentine’s Day gained popularity in Britain in the 1600’s, and by the mid-1700’s small gifts and notes were commonly exchanged in every rung of English society.

History.com places the emergence of handmade valentines in the America in the early 18th Century, and credits Ester A. Howland with being the first American producer of store stocked valentines in the 1840’s. 

Paul Leonard February 14, 2012 at 07:59 PM
Just a note for all you history buffs out there... The emperor who persecuted Valentine, according to Christians, was Claudius Gothicus—not Claudius, who ruled Rome about 200 years earlier.

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