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  St. Valentine's Day

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On February 14 each year millions of cards, flowers, candy and tokens of love are exchanged between sweethearts, all in the name of St. Valentine. Chocolates and jewelry are the big hits of this holiday as is romantic dinners. But who is this mysterious saint and why do we celebrate this holiday? Much of St. Valentine's story is a mystery, clouded by centuries of myth and legend. But we do know that February has long been a month of romance.

The first interpretation has this celebration originating as a pagan tradition in the third century. During this time hordes of hungry wolves roamed outside of Rome where shepherds kept their flocks. The God Lupercus, was said to watch over the shepherds and their flocks and keep them from the wolves. Every February the Romans celebrated a feast called Lupercalia to honor Lupercus so that no harm would come to the shepherds and their flocks. Also during Lupercalia, but in honor of the goddess Juno Februata. The celebration featured a lottery in which young men would draw the names of teenage girls from a box. The young men and girls who were matched would be considered partners for the year, which began in March.

St. Valentine's Day, as we know it today, contains vestiges of both ancient Roman and Christian tradition. One of the earliest popular symbols of the day is Cupid, the Roman god of love, who is represented by the image of a young boy with bow and arrow. Cupid became associated with it because he was the son of Venus, the Roman god of love and beauty.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, "At least three different Saint Valentines, all of them martyrs, are mentioned in the early martyrologies under the date of 14 February." Two of these men lived in the third century A.D., one being the bishop of Interamna (now Terni, Italy) and the other a priest of Rome. (Some speculate that these two figures were actually the same man.) Both seem to have been persecuted for their beliefs. Legends vary on how the martyr's name became connected with romance: the date of his death may have become mingled with the feast of Lupercalia, or with the ancient belief that on February 14th the birds (particularly lovebirds) began to choose their mates.

The most popular legend tells that St. Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome. When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men -- his crop of potential soldiers. Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When Valentine's actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death.

Another version had St. Valentine jailed for helping Christians. He comforted, encouraged, and even rescued victims of religious persecution. Some say Valentine further antagonized the Emperor by continuing to preach the gospel. While Valentine was in prison he cured a jailer's daughter of blindness. Claudius became enraged and had Valentine clubbed and beheaded on February 14, 269 A.D.

The most romantic story claims that Valentine actually sent the first 'valentine' greeting himself. While in prison, he fell in love with a young girl -- who may have been his jailor's daughter. Valentine poured out his heart on paper, writing the most beautiful love letters to her. When the date was set for his execution, he penned one last epistle to his sweetheart, which he signed: "From Your Valentine" an expression that is still in use today.

The truth behind the Valentine legends is murky but the stories certainly emphasize his appeal as a sympathetic, heroic, and, most importantly, romantic figure. In 496 Pope Gelasius declared the day in honor of St. Valentine. Through the centuries the February 14 remained a time to exchange love messages and gifts although the holiday was removed from the Church's calendar in 1969.

Sources: History Channel & Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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