STARKVILLE, Miss.--Though he credits the holiday of love we know today largely to the Hallmark card company, Bob Wolverton, an expert in the classics, has studied the threads of Valentine's Day and its origins throughout history.
"There's a long time between Christmas and Easter without sending cards, but around 1910, Hallmark found the answer to their problem. Now Valentine's Day is the second best-selling day for cards out of the year," the MSU professor of classics and modern languages and literature said.
However, the earliest celebrations of this holiday came with the Romans as a religious celebration, focusing on purity and honoring the god Faunus in the month of February, called the Lupercalia, Wolverton said. A ceremony held around Feb. 15 became known as one of the most important aspects of the month.
"Any young lady who wished to have a boyfriend would put her name in a jar at the foot of Palatine Hill. The next day, young men would come along, and if they were so inclined to date, they would pull the name of a young lady from the jar. He had to date this girl at least three times. This was a big ceremony during the month of purification," he explained.
The origins of the holiday also are tied into legends of one or more Christian martyrs, each known by the name Valentinos.
"One such legend says that the reason he was martyred was because the emperor at the time decreed that Roman soldiers could not marry, and this was one of the priests who was performing marriage ceremonies for these soldiers."
"Another story goes like this: this priest in the Christian church was imprisoned after refusing to renounce his faith. He became very close to the prison warden's daughter, who was blind, and over the course of time, he was able to cure her blindness. When it came time for his execution, he left the warden's daughter a note, saying how happy he had been to know her. He simply signed it, 'Valentinos.'"
The third strand of the holiday's origins came in the 14th century with English writers, including Geoffrey Chaucer.
"One of Chaucer's poems stated that on February 14, a bird chose its mate, and from that came the modern phrase 'love bird.' William Shakespeare and John Donne also mentioned this phenomenon in their writing."
From these writings came the advent of sending tokens of love in the form of gifts and cards from one 'love bird' to another, a practice which followed the early settlers from Europe to America.
In the new world, traditions of Valentine's Day were upheld, evolving into the celebration we know today in the early twentieth century.
"If you weren't a poet, you could always depend on the writers of Hallmark cards," Wolverton said with a laugh. "Now, we all exchange valentines, with our friends and classmates and even the teacher at school."
"There's no way St. Valentine could have known this would have happened! But this holiday, this blend of the religious and of the secular, is a beautiful story to follow."