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The History of Valentine's Day


Valentine's Day postcard with Cupid holding a bow and arrow seated in a two wheeled cart made of flowers, 1910
WHI 63801

Every February 14th, gifts, candy, loved ones exchange cards and flowers, all in the name of St. Valentine. But who is this Valentine fellow, and why do we celebrate his holiday? Historically, February has long been a month associated with romance, and St. Valentine's Day, as we call it today, contains elements of both Christian and Roman traditions. Its patron saint, however, remains shrouded in a bit of mystery.

Roman Origins?

One legend has it that Valentine was a Roman priest serving under Emperor Claudius II in the third century. When Claudius outlawed marriage to protect his crop of potential soldiers, Valentine defied his orders and continued to perform marriages in secret. For this, he was put to death. Other stories suggest that Valentine may have been killed for attempting to help Christians escape Roman prisons.

Why Valentine's Day is celebrated in the middle of February is also a mystery. Some believe that it commemorates Valentine's death or burial. Others think that the Christian church may have decided to celebrate Valentine's Day in an effort to "Christianize" the Roman fertility celebration known as Lupercalia. Additionally, in the Middle Ages it was commonly believed in France and England that February 14th was the beginning of the mating season for birds, adding to the idea that the middle of February was a time for romance. February 14th was officially declared St. Valentine's Day by Pope Gelasius in A.D. 498.

Valentine's Day became widely celebrated in Britain in the 17th century. People of all classes began exchanging gifts or handwritten notes. Americans began giving handmade cards in the early 1700s. Esther A. Howland sold the first mass-produced Valentine in America in the 1840s. Today, Valentine's Day is second only to Christmas in the number of cards sent each year.

Valentine's Day in Wisconsin


:: Posted February 14, 2013

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