Saturday, 18 February 2012

The history and origins of St Valentines Day - A guide to the day

If you're stumped for creative Valentine'sDay ideas, try incorporating some of the history of the holiday into your plans. The origins of Valentine's Day go back further than you may think, and may provide some inspiration to make some old traditions new again. According to the Catholic Church, there have been three saints named Valentine. The one that inspired the holiday is a mystery, but there are plenty of legends surrounding him.

The more popular and romantic of these stories contends that Valentine was a Roman priest under Emperor Claudius II. When the emperor decreed that young men could no longer marry, so as to make better soldiers, Valentine protested and continued to perform marriage rituals in secret. When caught, he was jailed and was ordered to be put to death. Prior to his execution, Valentine received visits from a girl, believed to be the jailer's daughter, and he fell in love with her. Before his death, he wrote the girl a letter and signed it "From your Valentine," in what may have been the first valentine's card.

The image above shows coins depicting Claudius II, commonly associated with the origins of St. Valentine’s Day.
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The February date of Valentine's Day is unlikely to coincide with Saint Valentine's death. It's probable that the selection of Valentine's feast day was, instead, a decision made by the Christian church to usurp the pagan festival of Lupercalia. In ancient Rome, the Lupercalia festival was a sacred celebration of fertility and involved animal sacrifice. After these rituals, young women and men would be paired together by drawing names from an urn and would spend the year together in a kind of ancient world prolonged blind date. Starting in the Middle Ages, the French and English came to believe that the mating season for birds began on February 14th, helping cement that date as a day for romantic aspirations.

Valentine's Day didn't come into popular celebration in Great Britain until the 17th century. Handwritten notes and small gifts were common exchanges among friends and lovers of all social classes; by the end of the 18th century, the handwritten letters were replaced by printed cards. In the United States, handwritten cards became popular in the Revolutionary War and went into mass production during the early twentieth century.

The oldest known Valentine's Day card is on display at the British Library and dates from 1415. The author was Charles, Duke of Orleans, writing to his wife during his time at the Tower of London. Not long after this, legend holds that Henry V sent a valentine note to Catherine of Valois, after hiring a writer to compose it for him. Slightly more famous, the oldest existing valentine written in English is one from 1477 and was composed by Margery Brews of Norfolk to her fiancé. It is also on display at the British Library.

Valentine's Day candy is associated with the holiday as much as the cards. Chocolate has a long-standing link with romance, dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries. Montezuma of the Aztec Empire consumed chocolate regularly to increase his virility. The romantic reputation of the sweet has only grown since. As for those ubiquitous little candy hearts, their origin goes as far back as the American Civil War. Back then, they were called Conversation Hearts and were shaped pieces of sugar and flour candy with rolled up paper messages inside.

For romantic Valentine'sDay getaways, consider adding a touch of holiday history. In London, visit the British Library and see the oldest Valentine’s Day cards on display. Wander through Rome and learn more about the ancient Lupercalia festivals and their patron god, Faunas. France has strong historical links with the holiday, too; Charles, Duke of Orleans, was a Frenchman, and there is a village in central France named for Saint Valentine. In St-Valentin, tourists visit from all over the country for a weekend-long Valentine's Day celebration every year. These Valentine's Day getaways are both meaningful and sure to impress!

The above photo shows a horse and carriage ride in St Valentin, France.

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