Valentine’s Day is in exactly one week. It’s time to buy cards and candy for loved ones, plan romantic evenings, and surprise each other with gifts. For parents, it’s time to buy that box of cartoonish valentines, sit your child down, and help them write one out for every kid in the class.
If you find yourself wondering why you are out shopping for cards and heart-shaped candies and navigating through the tedious class list sent home by your child’s teacher, you’re not alone. Some people even question the authenticity of the holiday, claiming a conspiracy by candy makers and card companies. But the day can be traced back to well before the middle ages, and handwritten valentines originated before the 1400s.
The actual history behind Valentine’s Day is as fascinating as it is mysterious. The stories and legends are murky, but many involve a Roman priest named Valentine who lived in the third century. According to legend, the emperor at the time, Claudius II, outlawed marriage because he believed single fellows made better soldiers. Valentine defied the law and married young couples in secret. He was discovered an imprisoned, where he apparently healed the jailor’s daughter of blindness and fell in love with her. Before he was put to death, he sent her a note and signed it “From Your Valentine.”
Valentine’s Day was officially established as a “feast day” in 496 AD by Pope Gelasius I. He established the day to suppress a very ancient pagan festival called Lupercalia, which was held from February 13 through 15. Although Pope Gelasius intended to convert this pagan ritual into a pious holiday, the very ancient rituals persisted.
In the 1300s, Valentine’s Day was forever linked to romance by Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of the Canterbury Tales. Chaucer, one of the most distinguished figures in English literature, wrote a poem based on the French and English belief at the time that birds mated in February.
The oldest written valentine is kept in the British Library in London, England. In 1415, Charles, the Duke of Orleans, was imprisoned in the Tower of London. A French nobleman, he was captured after the Battle of Agincourt and would spend the next 25 years as a prisoner of war. When he was first imprisoned, he wrote a poem and sent it to his wife – one of about 500 poems the duke wrote while being held in the Tower.
And while the origins may be muddy, the history of Valentine's Day in the United States is very clear: The US can trace its first mass-produced valentines to 1847. An artist named Esther Howland began making valentines after receiving one from England. Her father, who owned a stationery store in Worcester, Massachusetts, helped her start her business, which grew steadily into a major operation.
Now, if your sweetheart decides to pull the "it's not a real holiday" line on you, you'll have a response. Valentine's Day has been associated with romance throughout history, so get with tradition and celebrate with hearts, flowers, and chocolates. Enjoy!