Valentine’s Day: Much More Than a Hallmark Holiday

Here's what you never knew about Christian history — and the saint who made this day famous

From long-stemmed roses and fancy perfume to baseballs with playful hearts stitched in red, U.S. consumers are expected to plunk down a rather stunning $19.6 billion for this holiday, according to the National Retail Federation (NRF). That includes $654 million on gifts for co-workers — or about $4.79 each.

That’s a lot of candy, flowers, giant-sized teddy bears, and so much more for those we hold dear.

“Americans are looking forward to pampering and indulging their loved ones with flowers, candy, dinner, and all of the other Valentine’s Day stops,” said Matthew Shay, NRF’s president and CEO, in a statement. “With the holidays behind them and the winter months dragging along, consumers are looking for something to celebrate this time of year.”

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Despite the extensive commercialization of St. Valentine’s Day by retailers and others, its origin and history may surprise you — not unlike Cupid’s arrow.

Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition asserts that there were actually two St. Valentines, not just one. For example, the liturgical Feast Days of Valentinos — Greek for Valentine — commemorate two Early Christian saints.

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St. Valentine, a priest from Rome, is venerated every year on July 6, while St. Valentine, the bishop of Terni in Italy, is venerated annually on July 30. Similarly, both men suffered a fate of martyrdom in 270 for refusing to renounce Christ amid the Roman persecution of Christians under Emperor Claudius II.

According to Dr. Alexandros Kyrou, a professor of history at Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts, both saints lived near each other in central Italy. Over the centuries, their personal narratives were intertwined.

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Sources indicate that Bishop Valentine was widely known for healing the sick and the blind. One account actually claims he healed the blind daughter of a prison guard where he was jailed. On the night before his execution, on Feb. 14, he reportedly left the young girl a note signed, “Your Valentine.”

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Valentine the priest, meanwhile, was a staunch defender of the sacrament of marriage — so much so that he provoked the ire of the emperor for defying a ban against allowing men who had not yet served in the military to marry.

In essence, he refused to compromise the sanctity of marriage to satisfy the state. Instead, he united Christian couples who were legally barred from marrying — as Christians were still being persecuted at the time.

Interestingly enough, St. Valentine the priest’s unwavering support for marriage served as the inspiration for subsequent literary works that would eventually evolve into the secular concept of Valentine’s Day.

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Some historians say the holiday was first tied to romantic love in the 14th century — when the notion of courtly love began to flourish. Geoffrey Chaucer, known as the father of English literature and widely considered the greatest English poet of the Middle Ages, is credited for inventing Valentine’s Day as we know it — a holiday celebrating amorous love.

Dartmouth English professor Peter Travis said that Chaucer’s poem “The Parliament of Fowls” explored the idea of erotic desire and paid homage to St. Valentine himself: “Providing promise that, even in the depths of winter, summer is not all that far off.”

That was just the beginning.

Esther A. Howland began selling mass-produced valentines in America in the 1840s. Known as the “Mother of the Valentine,” Howland adorned her elaborate creations with lace, ribbons, and colorful pictures.

“Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely; does not seek its own…”

With affectionate sentiments such as, “This heart of mine is ever thine,” Hallmark — originally known as Halls Bros. — entered the market at about 1915, expanding its offerings to include all kinds of cards.

Today, the Greeting Card Association reports that an estimated 1 billion Valentine’s Day cards are sent each year — making this the second largest card-sending holiday of the year (after Christmas, of course).

Sadly, over time, the memory of St. Valentine the priest had become so tainted and exploited via commercialization and frivolity that the Roman Catholic Church by 1969 had stopped commemorating and venerating the beloved saint.

It’s important to remember, though, that both St. Valentines are resonant examples of what it means to live a life in Christ — having personified the poignant words found in Scripture, 1 Corinthians 13:4-8.

 “Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely; does not seek its own; is not provoked; thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all thing, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.”

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To be sure, this is the true meaning of Valentine’s Day.

Elizabeth M. Economou is a former adjunct professor and CNBC staff business writer; this article originally appeared last year and has been updated. 

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