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Valentine celebration dates back centuries

Every year on Feb. 14, spouses, friends, families and lovers celebrate Valentine's Day. But where did this tradition come from? It turns out that people have been celebrating something like Valentine's Day for thousands of years.

Every year on Feb. 14, spouses, friends, families and lovers celebrate Valentine's Day. But where did this tradition come from? It turns out that people have been celebrating something like Valentine's Day for thousands of years.

The whole event goes back to the time of the Roman Empire. Romans celebrated the Feast of Lupercalia. This ancient pagan fertility celebration, which honored Juno, goddess of women and marriage, was held on Feb. 14. During festival time, women would write love letters, also known as billets, and leave them in a large urn. The men of Rome would then draw a note from the urn and pursue the woman who wrote the message they had chosen. The custom of lottery drawings to select valentines continued into the 18th century.

As with many of these pagan festivals, including Christmas and Easter, the Catholic church decided to substitute a Christian celebration in place of the pagan celebration. Therefore, in 496 A.D., Pope Gelasius named Feb. 14 in honor of Saint Valentine as the patron saint of lovers.

Who was Saint Valentine? This gets a little murky. Archaeologists, who unearthed a Roman catacomb and an ancient church dedicated to St. Valentine, are not sure if there was one Valentine or more. Today, the Catholic Church recognizes at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom were martyred on Feb. 14 -- at least two of those in Italy during the 3rd century. The most popular candidate for Saint Valentine was a 3rd century Roman priest who practiced Christianity and performed secret marriages against direct orders from Emperor Claudius II, who believed single soldiers were more likely to join his army. Legend has it that Valentine sent a friend (the jailer's daughter) a note signed "From Your Valentine" before he was executed on Feb. 14 in 270 A.D.

The obvious question is, how did this simple religious proclamation turn into the card-giving, chocolate-eating, flower-sending non-religious festival that we have today?

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The card giving started hundreds of years ago. The first written valentine is usually attributed to the imprisoned Charles, Duke of Orleans, in 1415. He reportedly passed the time by writing romantic verses for his wife. By the 16th century, written valentines were commonplace. In 1840 a woman named Esther Howland began selling commercially made Valentine's Day cards. Then in 1915, a woman named Joyce Hall started Hallmark as a teenager. Hallmark today is a massive company selling billions of cards. Nearly one billion cards change hands around Feb. 14.

Flowers came into the mix starting in the 1700s. Charles II of Sweden brought the Persian poetical art called "the language of flowers" to Europe. Throughout the 18th century, floral lexicons were published, allowing people to send messages with a bouquet of flowers. The rose, representing love, is probably the only flower with a meaning that is universally understood. The red rose remains the most popular flower bought by men in the United States.

And then there is chocolate. It became popular in the 1800s. The first heart-shaped box of chocolate came from Richard Cadbury in 1861.

Nearly everyone gets wrapped up in this holiday. Kids give Valentines to each other and their teachers in classrooms across America. Sons and daughters give valentines to their parents and vice versa. Married couples celebrate, as does anyone who is even vaguely dating someone else. It all adds up to an average of more than $50 for every man, woman and child in the United States spent on Valentine's Day -- more than $13 billion total for this one holiday. That's a lot of cards and flowers.

-- Copyright © 2008, How Stuff Works Inc./Distributedby McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Related Topics: FLOWERS
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