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History of Valentine's Day
Updated: 2004-02-11 11:32

Once a year on Feb 14, or St Valentine's Day, many of us put aside our veneer of seriousness and wallow in mushy sentimentality. We buy stalks of expensive red roses, heart-shaped chocolates or other keep-sakes and settle down to romantic candlelight dinners.

Although we celebrate Feb 14 each year, not many of us know how St Valentine's Day came about. Some believe that it marks the day a Roman priest called Valentine (Valentinus) died for his faith in the early days of Christian history.

Condemned by Emperor Claudius II for refusing to denounce his faith, he was beaten with clubs and stoned before being beheaded on Feb 14 AD 269.

The story goes that St Valentine had performed many miracles that saved the early Christians. He was thrown into jail where he again performed another miracle - he cured his jailor's daughter, Julia, of blindness.

On the eve of his execution, St Valentine wrote a farewell note to Julia and signed off with these memorable words "...from your Valentine".

Though it was just an ordinary note to a friend, it somehow led to the practice of sending romantic messages or cards to loved ones - a tradition which is now part and parcel of St Valentine's Day.

According to a Hallmark greeting card highlighting "The legend of St Valentine", the Christian martyr was buried at what is now the Church of Praxedes in Rome. It is said that Julia herself planted a pink-blossomed almond tree near his grave.

Today, the almond tree remains a symbol of abiding love and friendship, according to the legend. However, there is some controversy over the saint who started the Valentine tradition, for there is another saint, also called Valentine, who was also beheaded in the same year by Claudius II.

This other St Valentine was in the habit of blessing the marriages of lovers - something which was deemed illegal as the emperor thought such unions were not conducive to the conduct of wars as the men would stay home instead of going out to fight.

Whoever the original Valentine was, the beginnings of St Valentine's Day apparently go further back in time before the birth of Christ.

Believe it or not, the day for sweethearts and lovers actually started as a pagan festival in Rome called Lupercalia over 2,700 years ago. Lupercalia was designated a day of feasting and merry-making in honour of the pastoral god, Lupercus.

The people of Rome had lived in fear of wolves who had devoured shepherds and their sheep but with divine intervention from Lupercus, the wolves were finally driven away.

This pastoral god was later replaced by the goddess Juno Regina who was regarded the patron of marriages. From then onwards the Feb 14 celebrations were held in her honour.

In olden times, this day for "love-birds" apparently coincided with the beginning of the bird-mating season.

St Valentine's Day was held in England and France "at the start of the second fortnight of the second month that birds begin to mate", says one dictionary.

A lottery was held on this day to pair off young couples. Roman maidens would put their names on pieces of paper and place them into an urn. Then the men would pick out the names of the girls whom they were expected to court that year. (Perhaps the Social Development Unit (SDU) can take a pointer from those fun-loving Romans on Feb 14!)

But in AD 496, when Rome became fully Christianised, this pagan festival was retained but its significance was mixed up with Christian history and renamed St Valentine's Day to pay homage to St Valentine.

This time the traditional lottery had a more religious character. The names of saints, instead of girls', were put into the urn for people to draw out. The saints selected in the lottery would be the models for the people to emulate that year.

The tradition of St Valentine's Day had spread throughout Europe by the 15th century, and some countries practised the old lottery tradition of selecting a girlfriend or boyfriend despite attempts to change it. Customs also varied.

Girls in Sicily had a fascinating way of picking a mate for life. On St Valentine's Day they would get up at the crack of dawn and wait for the first man to pass by their window.

The first one to do so would be their future husband but, alas, if no one walked by they would know that they would have to remain a spinster that year!

The first Valentine cards or love notes are believed to have been sent sometime in the 15th century.

According to one story, the young Duke of Orleans, a romantic at heart, sent love poems to his wife while he a prisoner in the Tower of London. He was among the first to send a Valentine message.

Since then, card manufacturers have been trying to outdo each other in wittiness. For example, in the 1850s, Valentine cards were designed in the form of bank notes which were drawn on "the Bank of True Love - secured by the pledge of the whole stock of Truth, Honour and Fidelity, in the State of Matrimony".

The bearers had to pledge to "pay to... on acceptance of the sincere homage and never-failing devotion of an affectionate heart". Later, Valentine cards turned into "penny dreadfuls" or cards with rude messages that made fun of the recipients.

These cards cost just a penny and were dreadfully saucy! This nasty Valentine tradition has even crept up in recent times, especially among spurned lovers in the West.

There is this bitter-sweet story of how a man sent his ex-sweetheart a dead rose on St Valentine's Day to symbolise the death of their relationship.

Bitter or sweet, St Valentine's Day is still a day to be remembered. In the past decade - especially the second half of the 1980s - more Singaporeans, young and old, have joined hearts to celebrate this day for sweethearts.

With the Government's call for more singles to tie the knot and have more babies, perhaps, St Valentine could be adopted as the patron saint of the SDU and the nation as a whole in the 1990s.

Anyway, Happy Valentine's Day, lovers worldwide.

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