Valentines Day, like any other ancient holiday, is based on an equal amount of fact and fiction. The myths are what make the holiday so romantic and the facts give the myths a bit of a backbone. The most popular story is such a mix of tales and legends that it makes it hard to pull out which pieces are really true. But, who really cares what is true? It's all about love anyway, right?
The Pagan Festival
Thousands of years ago, Rome had a festival in the middle of February. This festival was dedicated to the pagan god Lupercus. As it was a festival for male fertility and Women's Rights were not yet fully enacted, most women find the festival rather distasteful today.
Young men who were coming of age would pick the name of a young woman randomly from a box. The girl who was chosen would be that young man's, uh, date for the rest of the year. Because the early Catholic Church was not a huge fan of this style of drawing, they insisted the names of saints be drawn by the young men instead of girls. They boys would then try to emulate their saint for the rest of the year. I'm sure the young ladies were pleased with the switch, even if the boys weren't.
The Church Makes a Switch
In the 5th Century AD, the church was doing away with pagan holidays and gods. They wanted to find a suitable saint for the celebration. They finally landed on St. Valentine. St. Valentine was martyred for his faith by Emperor Claudius on February 14 centuries before.
According to legend (and not necessarily fact) Claudius felt like married men made bad soldiers. He forbade men to marry in his kingdom so that his army would be better. Valentine, an early Christian, took pity on the men and married them to their loves in secret. When Claudius found out, he was not pleased with Valentine.
Valentine in Prison
Claudius had Valentine thrown into prison for breaking the law and refusing to become pagan. While in prison, Valentine (again, according to legend) fell in love with the blind daughter of the jailer. Through his love and his faith, the daughter had her vision restored.
Eventually, Claudius got tired of trying to convert Valentine, and Valentine had no luck converting Claudius to Christianity. Claudius had Valentine stoned and beheaded. The last thing Valentine did before his death was send his love a note signed, "From Your Valentine." The saying has lived on.
The Lovey Dovey Part
Even without the drawing for female company, young men in Rome continued to use the festival as a time to seek the affection of young ladies. They often sent cards around the 14th signed with Valentine's name. Cupid, the Roman god of love and son of Venus, began to be associated with the day as well.
The first real Valentine we know of was sent in 1415 from the Duke of Orleans to his wife. The Duke was in prison at the time. The card tradition has stayed and Valentines cards now count for 25% of cards sold throughout the year in the United States alone.
This Valentine's day, whether you celebrate with your love or with your friends, know that you are enjoying a day in much the same way as people have done for centuries. Have fun, and enjoy everything the day has to offer. After all, Valentines Day comes only once a year!