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Valentine's Day has a long, complex history

By Kathleen McWilliams
On February 14, 2014

  • Sweet Emotions, shown above, is a candy store in the Storrs Center. Modern Valentine’s Day places the focus on gifts of candies and greeting cards but its history is far richer. JACKIE WATTLES/The Daily Campus

Valentine's Day has come to mean chocolate, flowers and romantic dinners for two in recent years. Like most holidays, the true meaning of the celebration has been lost in stacks of Hallmark cards and empty boxes of Russell Stover chocolates.
Valentine's Day was first celebrated as a Christian Feast to celebrate Roman Priest Valentius, who was killed for marrying soldiers and ministering services to Christians being persecuted in the Roman Empire. He is said to have been martyred on Feb. 14 between the years of 269 and 273. Aside from his death not much is known about the life of Valentius - but his legend was preserved by a feast, as was common for saints at the time. St. Valentine's Day was not always celebrated due to the lacks of facts on his life. Most Saints who were celebrated - such as St. Patrick or St. Andrew - had lives that were documented, and most Christian peoples would have known their histories.
However, Valentius' name was resurrected in the 8th-century by Bede's "Martyrology." In this collection of myths and hagiographies, or the lives of saints, Valentius is a Roman priest who is brought to Emperor Claudius to be killed for converting people to Christianity. Valentius, according to the myth, impressed Claudius and offered to spare Valentius' life if he converted to paganism. Valentius refused and offered to convert Claudius instead. He was sentenced to be executed, but - while in jail - Valentius performed a miracle on the jailer's daughter and converted them both to Christianity before he was killed.
Finding the connection between Valentius' story and our relatively-modern idea of sending sweets and flowers to loved ones is difficult. In some versions of the tale, Valentius is said to have performed the miracle and say "Your Valentine" in endearment. The most common connection, however, comes from the village of Norfolk in England where a "Jack Valentine" would come and leave sweets at your door on Feb. 14 in anticipation of spring. The practice of sending cards and gifts to loved ones originates in the United Kingdom from this folk tradition.
Similarly - but most likely unrelated - is the Roman tradition of Lupercalia, the festival of fertility. This feast was observed from Feb. 13-15, and it celebrated physical love and in the 14th century but was changed by Pope Gelasius I to be a celebration of purity and romantic emotional love.
 


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