Holiday History: Valentine's Day

The story behind one of America's most popular holidays. Tips on tradition in different regions and the reasons for the practices.


Valentine's Day has become a special day marked by love. Like many other holidays steeped in time and tradition, there are varying accounts as to the historical roots of this celebration.


During Roman times, a February 15th holiday known as "The Feast of Lupercalis" was celebrated to honor Faunus, a Roman pastoral god. By keeping with tradition, legend held that shepherds would guarantee themselves fertile fields, flocks and wives. During the day-long banquet, Roman men and women would draw partners by lottery, and shepherds would then court their prospective mate, all the while being blessed by Fauna.

It is believed that sometime during the 14th century, the pagan Feast of Lupercalis merged with a Christian celebration which honored two men (known as Saint Valentine) who had been killed because of their faith. The latter holiday or "Feast of Saint Valentine" was typically held February 14th. As time went on, a mythical patron of lovers emerged, known today as Saint Valentine.


Another version of the story contends that once the pagan holiday of Lupercus was forbidden, a man named Bishop Valentine began helping young lovers marry, against the wishes of the Emperor. Shortly before his execution, Valentine penned a love letter to a woman, signing his note "From Your Valentine."


Cupid, the small, almost-childlike figure with wings and a bow and arrow that dons many Valentine cards is a figure taken from Greek mythology. Cupid is known as Aphrodite's son, Eros, or the son of the Roman Goddess of love.


Though the roots of Valentine's Day are a bit mixed, most historians agree that we celebrate the popular February holiday because due to both Christian and Roman tradition. The Catholic church still recognizes three individual saints who bear the name "Valentine" or "Valentinus."


Historians have marked the celebration of Valentine's Day to several different time periods. During the 14th century, it was common to celebrate this holiday with loved ones and a large feast. In the 16th century, it appears the first gifts exchanged hands, with the passing of the paper valentine. A tiny card, usually handmade, was given anonymously to another. Great Britain began to celebrate Valentine's Day around the 17th century, also passing anonymous cards to loved ones. During the 1800s, paper cards were replaced by much larger, hand-painted copperplates, often molded into the shape of a heart. In later years, the copperplates were replaced by woodcuts and carvings and lithographs.

By the middle of the 18th century, it became common tradition for all social classes to give small tokens of love or secretive, handwritten notes.


Today, Valentine's Day is one of the most celebrated holidays in all the world. Gifts stretch far beyond anonymous, handwritten letters in many countries. Today's most popular Valentine gifts include chocolates, flowers, candies, jewelry and of course, greeting cards.


IT IS believed that the "valentine" is the first ever greeting card.

THE FIRST mass-produced valentines were made in the 1840s by Esther Howland.

ONE BILLION valentine cards are sent each year.*

VALENTINE'S Day is the second largest card-sending and receiving day each year.*

VALENTINE'S Day is celebrated in the United States, Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, France and Australia.

*Greeting Card Association

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