In the United States, holidays are demanding. And Valentine’s Day is no different. Just after New Year’s Day, you are bombarded with instructions on what candy to buy, what flowers to send, what diet to go on, how to dress, where to eat, what to say and so on.
Capitalism is alive and well. The question is, ‘Do you really know what you are celebrating?’ February 14th—in the name of the patron saint Valentine. How did a centuries old Catholic martyr become the 3rd most expensive holiday in the United States? Well, as any good legend, there are options but the theme is evident—love and romance.
One legend contends that Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome. When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men.
Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death.
Other stories suggest that Valentine may have been killed for attempting to help Christians escape harsh Roman prisons, where they were often beaten and tortured.
According to one legend, an imprisoned Valentine actually sent the first “valentine” greeting himself after he fell in love with a young girl–possibly his jailor’s daughter–who visited him during his confinement. Before his death, it is alleged that he wrote her a letter signed “From your Valentine,” an expression that is still in use today.
As time passed, Valentine became one of the most popular saints in all of medieval England and France. And now he is with us each February 14.
But how did that date come about?
Was it the actual anniversary of his death or rather the Christian church trying to compete with the pagan celebration of Lupercalia (the Roman god of agriculture, paying homage to fertility). Or perhaps because the Middle Age inhabitants realized that February 14 was the beginning of mating season for birds. Regardless of the how the date came about, it stuck.
While the history of the holiday goes back centuries, the oldest known valentine greeting in existence is a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Americans started their capitalism ingenuity in the 1840’s when Esther A. Howland began selling the first mass-produced greeting.
She is now known as the ‘Mother of the Valentine’. And today, the Greeting Card Association estimates that 145 million Valentine’s Day cards are sent each year, with 85% of them being sent by women.
In addition to the United States, Valentine’s Day is celebrated in Canada, Mexico, France, Australia and the United Kingdom. But South Korea has taken it a step further.
South Korea celebrates on February 14th where the focus is on women doling out the presents. On March 14th the lovers swap roles and the men return in favor. For those who can’t participate in either of those two celebrations, April 14th (aka Black Day) is observed for singles to mourn and eat noodles with black bean paste.
And while some countries do not celebrate or even ban the thought of it—mostly because they are against the religious teachings—it is such a huge holiday that you can’t get away from the media and the limelight of those celebrating.
Whether you want to wallow in self-pity, have a singles night out (or in), celebrate Arizona Statehood Day instead (also February 14th) or partake in the more traditional manner of sweet nothings, candy and expensive dinners out, you can easily participate in the holiday. There really is something for everyone.
So, this year, get out and celebrate the rich history of St Valentine in whatever way you think is honoring.