The History of Valentine’s Day

Everyone knows that Valentine’s Day is a holiday when people show love family and friends. Some people send cards, candy or flowers to each other. But do you know how Valentine’s Day got its name?

The ancient Romans dedicated February 14 as a day of love. On that day, Romans honored Juno, the goddess of women and marriage. If they praised Juno, Romans believed that the goddess would help young men and women find their future wives and husbands. On February 14, the boys each drew a girl’s name from a container. When all the girls’ names were picked the next day, each boy paired up with the girl whose name he chose for another holiday to honor the god Lupercus. Older adults hoped that each pair of boys and girls would fall in love during the festival.

As Christianity spread across Europe, church officials didn’t want to honor the Roman gods, but they knew that the yearly celebration of love was very popular. In A.D. 486, Pope Gelasius replaced the Roman holiday with another festival. He named it after the Christian saint of love, Saint Valentine.

Painting of St. Valentine Kneeling

Painting of St. Valentine Kneeling

Saint Valentine is a mysterious figure. Some historians think that at least three different people in history shared the name Valentine. One legend says that Valentine was a Christian priest during the reign of Emperor Claudius II. Claudius had a hard time getting soldiers to fight his wars, so he forbid young men from marrying. Valentine disagreed with the emperor and performed secret marriages. When Claudius discovered Valentine’s actions, he threw the priest in jail. In this legend, Valentine was killed on February 14.

In another legend, Emperor Claudius wanted everyone to pray to the Roman gods. Valentine refused because he believed in the Christian religion. Claudius imprisoned Valentine for his disobedience. While Valentine was in jail, he fell in love with the prison guard’s blind daughter and gave her a note before he was killed. Suddenly, the girl could see again.

As time passed, people associated St. Valentine with lovers, and his day became a time when people hoped to find their sweethearts.

The Customs of Valentine’s Day: Sending Valentines

If your school has a Valentine’s Day party, you may be looking forward to sharing valentines with your classmates next week. Or maybe you’re planning to give a special valentine to a boy or girl you really like. Whoever you send your valentines to this year, you probably haven’t heard the history of Valentine’s Day cards.

The Duke of Orleans, a French nobleman who was captured by the British during a war, wrote the first valentine in 1415. He missed his wife very much and sent her love letters during his captivity. He filled his letters with poems that had rhyming verses.

The concept of sending similar letters caught on as more people learned to read and write. By the 1800s, the handmade Valentine’s Day card became popular in Britain. Many of the valentines made during the reign of Queen Victoria, known as Victorian valentines, had fancy ribbons and lace on them. At this stage, the cards were still made on single sheets of paper. The British postal service was always busy on Valentine’s Day delivering handmade cards.

In America, Valentine’s Day was not popular right away. Part of the reason was that few women came to the colonies in the early days so men had no sweethearts who expected cards. By the mid-1700s, some Americans exchanged handmade Valentine’s Day cards. Though not as sophisticated as British valentines, colonists found clever ways to make cards attractive. For example, women might use their sewing needles to poke tiny holes around a romantic verse, creating a pinprick border. If someone couldn’t write poetry, they could still send valentines thanks to British imported booklets that offered stumped lovers the verses they needed for a card.

In the mid-1800s, creating Valentine’s Day cards became a commercial business. Esther Howland designed the first commercial valentines in the U.S. Although businesswomen were rare in the 1800s, Esther set up her own workspace and sold valentines in her father’s stationary store. She used fine materials like lace and embossed paper.

Today sending valentines is still very popular, and people can choose from a wide variety of romantic, funny, or sweet cards to send to sweethearts or friends. In fact, in the U.S. Valentine’s Day is second only to Christmas in greeting card sales.Machine-made valentines appeared around 1880. Though the cards were cheaper they were also not as personal as early valentines. By the 1900s, valentines were often hinged so they could stand and be displayed. Some had moveable parts. For example,  one card showed a cherubic girl whose eyes moved with the pull of a tab.