Each year, we give and receive cards on Valentine’s Day, and see the heart-shaped boxes of candy in stores, but where did these traditions come from? Who was Saint Valentine and why do we devote a day to him?

Ancient Origins

The history is a little murky, with myths and legends overwhelming facts, and several tales mixing together. One of the most popular, and historically plausible, stories takes place in ancient Rome, under the rule of Emperor Claudius II in the third century.

The Roman Empire, which, in 270 A.D., was nearing the end of its domination as a world power, had to maintain a massive army to defend its borders. Claudius decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives or families, so he outlawed marriage for young men.

Valentine was a Catholic priest who considered the ban on marriage to be unjust, and he secretly performed marriages for any young couples who requested it. When Claudius discovered Valentine breaking the law, he had him arrested and sent to prison.

The Catholic Church made Valentine a saint for his sacrifice, and chose February 14, the date of his death, as the day on which he would be honored. Centuries later, in medieval England and France, people believed that February 14 was the day that many birds, returning for the spring, picked their mates.

A Poetic Beginning

English poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, first put the link between St. Valentine’s Day and romance in writing, with a poem composed in the late 1300s. The fanciful poem has birds discussing everything from politics to love, and ends in praise of Saint Valentine, relating Valentine’s Day to the date the birds would choose their mates, and to the coming of warmer weather. To paraphrase:

Saint Valentine, who sits aloft,
The birds all sing for your sake,
We welcome summer, with its sun so soft,
This winter weather to off-shake

From that one mention in that one poem, more than 600 years ago, the tradition started. By the mid-1700s, people regularly made and exchanged Valentine’s Day cards, a custom which became popular in America in the mid-1800s when Esther Howland started the New England Valentine Company, and began mass-producing Valentine cards. Today, 180 million cards are exchanged each year.

This Valentine’s Day, when you’re giving that special someone a card, remember that you’re taking part in a tradition that got its start over 1,700 years ago!

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