Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Origins of Valentine’s Day

The origins of the celebration we know today as Valentine’s Day are lost in the mists of time. The day’s moniker implies that its origins can found in the religious realm. In fact there are references to three different saints who bore the name of Valentine or Valentinus. The two most likely contenders are Valentine of Rome and Valentine of Terni. However, there appears to be little evidence that either of them were involved in the kinds of activities associated with the day. One possibility is that, like other holidays to include Christmas, the Catholic Church chose the day to coincide with an already popular pagan holiday, in this case the ancient Roman fertility Feast of Lupercalia. (1)

One of the more popular legends regarding the holiday is based on the story of St. Valentine, a priest who lived around 270 A.D. Valentine apparently decided to challenge the Roman Emperor Claudius-II who had issued an edict forbidding marriage. Allegedly, Claudius believed that single men made for better soldiers. Valentine would supposedly meet young lovers in secret places to perform the sacrament of Holy Matrimony. He was apparently caught and executed on February 24th 270. (2) The problem with this intriguing story is that the evidence suggests that it is exactly that, an amusing tale with little evidence to back it up.

Other theories link the day to the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer who in his poem, “Parlement of Foules “commemorated the engagement of the English king and his bride to be by noting that they had agreed to marry one another on February 14th. In a similar vein, the oldest valentine greeting apparently belongs to the French poet and nobleman, Charles Duke of Orleans who wrote it to his wife while imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt. Again, however, these examples are evidence that the custom of honoring one’s love on February 14th is quite old but they say nothing about the true origins of the holiday.

We do know that the origins of this popular holiday as we know it today, at least in the United States began, as so many popular ideas do, in an effort to make money. After her graduation from Mount Holyoke College in 1847, one Esther A. Howland received a Valentine’s Day card from England. Fascinated with the idea of making similar cards, she imported the materials, took orders for the cards, and ultimately pioneered the mass-production of Valentines to meet the rising demand she herself had created. (3)

In conclusion, as noted, the origins of day (At least if one is limited to searching for them solely within the sources found on the WWB) are likely to remain ethereal. However, the simple fact is that whatever the nature of its true beginnings, Valentines Day will most likely continue to be a time where husbands, wives, boyfriends, girlfriends and significant others of all stripes ignore the need to celebrate the day at their own peril.


One day while searching in a quotations database I came across the following, thought. “Intelligence is not necessarily knowing something but knowing where to find it. “ I was impressed and intrigued with the quote not just because I agreed with its premise but because it was attributed to Einstein, a man whose name is synonymous with intellect. In fact I was so impressed I used the quote in a power-point presentation I gave on “doing research on the WWB. “

Later on however I wanted to find out the exact circumstances under which Einstein uttered the phrase, sadly I learned that I had been duped. Not only did I not find the origins, but I was able to discover through several credible sources, that similar to Mark Twain’s quote “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco,” There was no evidence that Einstein had ever uttered the words.

I had a similar experience in trying to find the origins of Valentine’s Day on the web. My first thought was to go to the “Holy See” web page. After all the holiday is named after a saint, and who knows more about saints than the Catholic Church. Guess what? The site had no information on St. Valentine. I then tried the Jesuit web site. My thought was that there had to be some Jesuit braniac (sic) type who had written a treatise on the subject; again, no information was available.

One thing I did not want to do was to site Wikipedia, I saw that as a coward’s way out of the conundrum I faced. That was the good news; the bad news was I was forced to cobble together a series of theories none of which seemed credible enough to settle the issue, very frustrating!




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