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St. Valentine’s Day

Lace Valentine's card, M30_1

Valentine's card, M30_1

Did you get a Valentine’s card today?  Was it from a secret admirer?

The sending of Valentine cards is a well-known tradition in the UK but who was Valentine and why is he associated with love?  Here are a couple of stories I’ve discovered on how Saint Valentine’s Day might have begun. 

The first tells of Valentine, a priest who served during the third century in Rome.  When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men — his crop of potential soldiers.  Valentine, realising the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret.  When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death.   

Although there were several Christian martyrs named Valentine, the day probably took its name from a priest who was martyred about ad 270 by the emperor Claudius II Gothicus.   Another legend is that Valentine actually sent the first ‘valentine’ greeting himself.  While in prison, it is believed that Valentine fell in love with a young girl — who may have been his jailor’s daughter, who visited him during his confinement.  Before his death, it is alleged that he wrote her a letter, which he signed ‘From your Valentine,’ an expression that is still in use today. 

The holiday also had origins in the Roman festival of Lupercalia, held in mid-February.  The festival, which celebrated the coming of spring, included fertility rites and the pairing off of women with men by lottery.  At the end of the 5th century, Pope Gelasius I replaced Lupercalia with St. Valentine’s Day.  It came to be celebrated as a day of romance from about the 14th century. 

We don’t know if these stories are true, but if you have any other stories about the origins of Valentine’s Day please let us know by leaving a comment below. 

Victorian Valentine's Day card, M378_1

Victorian Valentine's Day card, M378_1

Formal messages, or valentines, appeared in the 1500s, and by the late 1700s commercially printed cards were  being used.  The first commercial valentines in the United States were printed in the mid-1800s. 

Valentine cards commonly depict Cupid, the Roman god of love, along with hearts, traditionally the seat of emotion.  It was thought that beacuse their mating season began in mid-February, birds also became a symbol of the day (love birds).  Traditional gifts include sweets/chocolate and flowers, particularly red roses, a symbol of beauty, passion and love. 

The day is popular in Britain as well as in, the United States,  Canada, and Australia, and it also is celebrated in other countries, including France, Mexico and Japan.

You can see more images of museum objects that are linked to love and romance on our Flickr photostream

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