Despite odd history, Valentine’s day still sweet as ever

Hand-crafted mailboxes stuffed with conversation hearts and cut-out Valentines in classrooms this year will probably contain no mention of the holiday’s possible origin in a pagan fertility festival that included adolescent boys slapping women with goat skins.

Similar to the identity of that shy Valentine behind the student council-sponsored red carnation you got in eighth grade, the story behind the second-most-popular card-sending holiday, and the saint himself, remain uncertain and steeped in legend.

In modern culture, Valentine’s Day has its origins in a saint’s day celebrated by the Catholic Church from about 496 B.C. to 1969, when it was dropped in a movement to rid the church of saints with primarily legendary status.

The man behind the holiday may have been one of three saints, all named Valentine, martyred on Feb. 14.

Many scholars believe Valentine inspired dislike from Roman emperor Claudius II. Believing unmarried men were more suited to fight in his army, Claudius outlawed marriages. Valentine, in response, secretly performed marriages until reprimanded by the Romans and put to death.

Another legend suggests that Valentine was imprisoned for his Christian beliefs and sent a love letter signed “your Valentine” to the jailer’s daughter before he was executed.

His supposed remains are now available for viewing every Feb. 14 in Dublin, Ireland, where they were brought after Pope Gregory XVI awarded them to Irish priest Father John Spratt for particularly good preaching in Rome in 1835.

A mid-February feast, however, had been held in pagan Roman culture for many years prior to the Catholic holiday.

The feast of Lupercalia honored Faunus, protector of herds and crops. Priests sacrificed a goat, for fertility, and a dog, for purification. They gave two young boys, impersonating goats, goat skins dipped in the sacrificial blood. The boys then took off through the streets, slapping fields and women with the strips to bring fertility to the town.

Valentine’s Day may have been adopted in England to celebrate the beginning of Spring. Feb. 14 was believed to be the day birds paired off for mating.

Despite its possible origins dealing with fertility, the changing of seasons or love and sacrifice, current rumors hold that Valentine’s Day was created by greeting card and candy companies.

About 192 million people (85 percent of them women) send Valentines, making it the second-most popular greeting-card day, according to Hallmark research. This does not include the cards children exchange in classrooms, which bring the total to 1 billion.

The first known Valentine was hand-written. Charles, Duke of Orleans, sent it to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1415.

Sending hand-made cards became popular in England in the eighteenth century and spread to the United States, especially when Mount Holyoke College graduate Esther A. Howland began mass-producing them.

The holiday is celebrated in Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, France and Australia.

Marketing schemes also have brought it to Japan, Korea and Taiwan. In these countries, only women give presents to men. In Japan, a marshmallow company in the 1960s created a reciprocal day, White Day, on March 14, in which men are supposed to give women gifts of white chocolate or marshmallows.

In the U.S., NECCO produces 100,000 pounds of its Sweetheart Conversation Hearts every day of the year to meet the six-week demand for 8 billion hearts. The ancestors of the sweethearts, “conversation candies,” were invented in the 1860s. They were passed around at parties and weddings and contained sayings tucked into the wrappers such as, “Please send a lock of your hair by return mail,” and “Married in pink, He will take to drink.”

When the first hearts were factory-made with imprinted words on the candy in the early 1900s, only eight to 12 letters could fit on them.

This year’s candy hearts will include the conjunctions “and” and “to.” The rest will have a home and family theme, with sayings such as “home soon,” “home run,” and “go home.”

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