Wordwise 126 A2854

“From your Valentine…”

  • 2013.02.07

Every year at this time, the windows and display shelves of department stores and gift shops in many places around the world are adorned with cardboard hearts and Cupids armed with bow and arrow.

Then, on February 14, candy, flowers, and other gifts are exchanged by loved ones*, all in the name of St. Valentine. And it’s big business, too! According to the U.S. census board, American consumers spend US$448 million on valentine’s chocolates alone. But, who is this mysterious Saint Valentine, and how did he come to represent love and romance (and how did these traditions come to be part of modern culture)?

There are several legends explaining the origins of Valentine’s Day, and the most popular of these dates back to Ancient Rome. The Catholic Church recognizes at least three Saints named Valentine (or Valentinus), all of whom were martyred. One legend claims that Valentine was a priest who lived in Rome during the third century. Believing that single men made better soldiers than those with wives, the Emperor outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine, however, opposed this decree and defied the authorities by continuing to secretly perform marriage ceremonies for young lovers. Unfortunately for Valentine and the many young couples hoping to get married, his actions were discovered and he was sentenced to death.

An alternative story contends that Valentine may have been killed for helping Christians escape persecution. The story goes that while in jail awaiting his execution, Valentine was visited often by a young girl, possibly his jailer’s daughter. Valentine fell in love with this girl and, apparently, sent her the very first “valentine” greeting. On the night before his death, he wrote a letter to her and signed it, “From your Valentine.” This expression is still in use today.

Later, at the end of the fifth century, Pope Gelasius declared February 14 St. Valentine’s Day. And, although the origins of Valentine’s Day will remain unclear, the stories all emphasize Valentine’s appeal as a heroic and romantic figure. And despite the commercialization, it remains a day for the romantic.

*The tradition differs here in Japan where only ladies give men presents on Valentine’s Day. Men get to give presents to ladies in return one month later on March 14th, White Day.