Valentine’s Day Legends and Truths

St. Valentine’s Day as a lovers’ festival dates at least from the 14th century, and possibly from much earlier. Here are some fun tidbits about the popular floral holiday.

Valentine’s Day is thought to have evolved from a spring holiday celebrated in the days of ancient Rome. The feast of Lupercalia was celebrated on February 15 and honored the god Lupercus, who protected the people and their herds from wolves.

    On this day, dances were held for all the single young men and women. A man would draw his partner’s name from a piece of papyrus placed in a bowl. The man not only danced with his partner but was also obligated to protect her throughout the new year, which began in March.

    In many cases, the partners became sweethearts and soon married. When the tradition of these dances was later revived in the Middle Ages, a man would wear his sweetheart’s name on his sleeve. Even today we refer to someone quick to show feeling as “wearing his heart on his sleeve.”

Another legend contends that Valentine was a priest during the third century in Rome. Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, so he outlawed engagement and marriage for young men, which were his crop of potential soldiers.

    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. He suffered martyrdom on the 14th day of February, about the year A.D. 270.

According to another legend, Valentine actually sent the first ‘valentine’ greeting himself. While in prison, it is believed that Valentine fell in love with a young girl who may have been his jailer’s daughter and visited him during his confinement.

    Before his death, it is alleged that he wrote her a letter, which he signed ‘From your Valentine,’ an expression that is still used today.

Another Roman legend of Saint Valentine emphasizes his love for children. The priest often told them stories and made them small bouquets from the flowers in his garden. When he was imprisoned for refusing to worship pagan gods, the children made bouquets of their own, adorning them with love notes and tossing them through the prison bars. Then Valentine prayed for a miracle, hoping that God would restore the sight of the jailer’s blind daughter. The Emperor Claudius became enraged when the miracle occurred and both the jailer and his daughter converted to Christianity. Condemned to die, the priest sent the young girl a farewell message signed simply, “from your Valentine.”

The heart is the most common symbol of romantic love. Some ancient cultures believed the human soul lived in the heart. Others thought the heart was the source of emotions and intelligence. Some believed the heart embodied a man’s truth, strength and nobility.

    The heart may be associated with love because the ancient Greeks believed it was the target of Eros, who was known as Cupid to the Romans. Anyone shot in the heart by one of Cupid’s gold-tipped arrows would fall hopelessly in love. Because the heart is so closely linked to love, it’s red color is thought to be the most romantic.

The emotions evoked by red are those that get the blood pumping, from love and courage to lust, rage and joy.

The red rose, the ultimate symbol of love, is said to have been created by Chloris, the Greek goddess of flowers, out of the lifeless body of a nymph.

Other flowers symbolizing love include: red tulip (declaration of love); honeysuckle (bonds of love); red carnation (passion, fascination, pure love); and larkspur (ardent attachment).

The giving of candy on Valentine’s Day became popular in the late 19th century when sugarcane cultivation spread worldwide.

An old English belief dictates that birds pick their mates on Feb. 14.

Over time, love notes sent to sweethearts on February 14 became known as valentines, as did those who sent them. Like the fresh bouquets fashioned by Saint Valentine, anything symbolizing sweetness and beauty became an appropriate gift—making candy and flowers traditional favorites to this day.

Paper valentines became popular in the 18th century. Before commercial printers created the colorful heirlooms we now have from Victorian times, people created their own valentines from paper scraps. American colonists spent cold winter nights making paper cutouts featuring knot patterns and interlocking hearts. Special verses were written inside the interlocking paths of these “love knots.”

The tradition of Valentine’s cards did not become widespread in the United States until the 1850s, when Esther A. Howland, a native of Worcester, Mass. and a graduate of Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., began mass-producing them.

Hallmark, the world’s largest greeting-card company, helped create the modern greeting-card industry, pioneering the sale of inexpensive card-plus-envelope to replace the postcards and elaborate valentines common to pre-World War I.

Chantilly lace, a delicate bobbin trim of flowers and scrolls, is a traditional background fabric for cards, candy and flowers on Valentine’s Day.


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