There’s more to Valentine’s Day

Story by Abigail O'Gorman

There’s more to Valentine’s Day than candy hearts and winged toddlers. The famous celebration of all things romantic sports a rich, though cloudy, history. Fact and legend are blended together, and historians often struggle to verify embellished “historical” accounts.

The most popular legend is that of St. Valentine, a Christian priest living in Rome around 270 A.D. The Emperor, Claudius II, banned marriage because he felt that single men made better soldiers. Valentine, understandably, took issue with this and married couples in secret. Eventually, the Roman authorities caught on and Valentine was sentenced to death. While in prison, Valentine is said to have befriended his jailer’s daughter. On Feb. 14, the day he was to be executed, he left her a farewell note signed “from your Valentine.”

Whether this account is true or is debatable. By the Middle Ages, however, Valentine had become one of the most popular saints, and Pope Gelasius I declared Feb. 14 “St. Valentine’s Day” in 496 A.D. The oldest surviving valentine is a poem that Charles, Duke of Orléans, wrote for his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. In Britain, it became common practice to give Valentine’s Day notes to friends and sweethearts by the 17th century. This soon spread to the United States, where cards were first sold commercially by Massachusetts native Esther Howland. Soon, these greetings were mass-produced, turning Valentine’s Day into the largely commercial holiday that it is today.