It’s not just a Hallmark holiday: it commemorates a bishop of the 3rd century named Valentine. Hearts and flowers came later.
According to one story, Valentine was under house arrest in the home of a Roman judge. The judge challenged the Christian to prove the validity of his faith, bringing out his blind daughter, Julia. Valentine laid his hands on her and implored God to save the girl (and him). When he removed his hands, Julia’s vision was restored. Amazed by the miracle, the judge and all his household converted to Christianity. He broke all his idols and freed all the Christians in jail.
Another account relates that Valentine continued to evangelize. He married Christian couples, which allowed the men to avoid conscription in the imperial army. To remind these men of their vows, Saint Valentine is said to have given them hearts he cut from parchment, which may explain the hearts of Valentine’s Day.
Valentine supposedly wore a purple amethyst ring, as did other Christian bishops. He had an image of Cupid, a pagan god, engraved on it. Romans recognized the god of love and would ask him to marry them. (Probably because of the association of amethysts with Saint Valentine, the gem has become the birthstone of February, and is thought to attract love.)
Claudius, the emperor, was not pleased. He had Valentine brought to Rome, but he took a liking to the bishop, at least until Valentine tried to convert him. Claudius refused and condemned Valentine to death. On February 14, 269, he was stoned (or beaten with clubs) and then beheaded when the torture didn’t kill him. More than two centuries later, Pope Gelasius declared a feast day on that date. But sadly, it was downhill from there. Since 1969, inclusion in local liturgical calendars became optional.
Before his execution, some say Valentine wrote a note to Julia, the judge’s daughter, and signed it “from your Valentine,” a possible origin of Valentine notes and cards. Oh, and if you’d like to see what’s left of his head, his alleged skull is crowned with flowers and exhibited in a Roman basilica. Other relics are scattered throughout Europe.
Some say that Geoffrey Chaucer was responsible for the association of romance and St. Valentine. Chaucer wrote the Parlement of Foules on the first anniversary of the engagement of Richard II to Anne of Bohemia. The poem contains the lines, “For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.” But the royal engagement was on May 3, also the day another Valentine (of Genoa) died. So who knows? It’s impossible to know how much is fantasy and what part of the legend reflects historical fact. Indeed, there were actually as many as 12 St. Valentines.
By the 18th century in England, the 14th of February had evolved into an occasion when partners expressed their love for each other with flowers, chocolate, and other gifts. And in the 19th century, the sending of Valentine’s cards had become so popular that they began to be mass produced, especially in America and Europe.