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Valentine's Day: A history

The Catholic Church recognises two Saint Valentines who were both executed and martyred on February 14 in Ancient Rome. One legend tells of a priest named Valentine who performed secret marriages for young lovers when Emperor Claudius II outlawed marriage for young men, as he believed wives made for distracted soldiers. Another legend tells of the first-ever ‘valentine’, when an imprisoned Valentine sent a love letter from jail after freeing Christians from persecution, which he signed with the now-traditional expression: “From your Valentine”.

Valentine's Day is also speculated to have emerged as an appropriation of Lupercalia, a pagan fertility festival celebrated in mid-February. One of the traditions of Lupercalia was the pairing of young women with the city’s bachelors, match-making lovers by pulling their names from a large urn. Lupercalia was eventually outlawed by the Catholic Pope Gelasius at the end of the 5th century, who declared that February 14 was the Feast of Saint Valentine; Valentine’s Day.

Valentine traditions began around the Middle Ages, as the romantic and admirable legend of Saint Valentine became popular throughout the French and British empires. Valentines in the form of written love letters and handmade cards began in the early 15th century, before the industrial revolution at the turn of the 19th century introduced mass-printing factory technology. The birth of the infamous Hallmark greeting card company in the United States in 1913 propelled Valentine’s Day to what it is today: one of the largest card-giving events of the year, second only to Christmas (The Greeting Card Association).

Symbols and traditions of Valentine's Day throughout the ages include hearts, doves, flowers (roses in particular), cards (both bought and handmade), chocolates, traditional courting (dating proposals), and the angelic cherub Cupid, an infantilised adaptation of the Greek god of love, Eros.

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