More Myth than History

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More Myth than History

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— Chris Samuels

The oldest love poem ever discovered was written on a clay tablet around 3,500 BC, but that hardly constitutes the beginning of Valentine’s Day. In actuality, Valentine’s Day was not celebrated as a romantic holiday until the late Middle Ages. However, the origins of Valentine’s Day are far from romantic.

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The original Valentine’s Day honors the martyrdom of two Christian saints: Valentine of Rome and Valentine of Terni. Traditionally, more stories and myths revolve around Valentine of Rome, and the two different Valentines are often grouped together as one person.

Very little is actually known about Valentine of Rome, other than where he was buried. The story goes that Valentine was Christian priest. He lived in Rome under Emperor Claudius II, who had allegedly placed a ban on marriages, believing that married men would not make good soldiers. Valentine continued performing Christian marriages anyway and was persecuted for this by the emperor. He refused to renounce his faith and was killed for his crimes. In actuality, the edict to ban marriage never happened, and Claudius II was known to encourage his men to pursue multiple women simultaneously.

Since very little is known about this saint, legends have flourished in order to fill in the details and romanticize Valentine. One myth claims that Valentine was imprisoned, and while he was in jail, he healed the jailor’s daughter of her blindness. Then, on the evening before his execution, he wrote a card to her signed, “Your Valentine.” Another myth claims that Valentine cut out paper hearts and gave them to the soldiers and other persecuted Christians in prison. He also supposedly wore an amethyst ring with the symbol of Cupid on it to signal soldiers that he was willing to perform marriages.

Another misconception about Valentine’s Day is the idea that it originated from the erotic Roman festival know as Lupercalia. This myth was formulated by Alfred Kellogg and Robert Cox, whose evidence did not hold up upon examination. Essentially, Lupercalia was a celebration of fertility, where men would run around wearing nothing but sashes of goat skin and strike women with strips of goat skin to promote fertility. This festival occurred Feb. 13 through 15 but was banned by Pope Gelasius I.

The beginning of Valentine’s Day as we know it truly started with Geoffrey Chaucer and his famous line, “For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.” The exact date Chaucer was referring to is unknown, though it is thought to be May 3, the celebration of Valentine of Geona, the time of year when birds would have mated in England.

The romantic side of the holiday started with the idea of courtly love, when knights would present maidens with roses and sing them love poetry. Commercialization of the holiday began much later. In the 1840s, Richard Cadbury, a British candy salesman with an eye for opportunity, began selling beautifully decorated boxes of chocolate on Valentine’s Day. As a marketing tool, he advertised that the boxes could be reused to send love letters after the chocolate had been eaten.

Further commercialization occurred in Massachusetts, where Esther Howland ran a successful all-women assembly line creating lace-paper Valentine’s Day cards with messages of love and devotion written on them. She got the idea from a valentine sent to her from one of her father’s business associates.

Modern Valentine’s Day has turned into more of a commercial holiday than the courtly love holiday it used to be. This year, the expected amount of money spent on Valentine’s Day is estimated to be $18.9 billion in the United States alone. Household pets also receive Valentine’s Day gifts, about $700 million worth every year. The price of roses increases just before Valentine’s Day because companies recognize that people will be willing to pay more during February.

Valentine’s Day is a holiday based almost entirely on myths. The romanticized version emerged from the death of two people and was deemed a romantic holiday by a popular author who promoted the concept of courtly love. It was transformed into the commercial holiday by a candy salesman who saw an opportunity to make money, and a woman with a desire to make beautiful cards. Despite this, Valentine’s Day has also turned into a holiday where couples can enjoy spending time together which is why it is still celebrated in our times.

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