Thursday, March 30, 2023

The meaning behind those heart-shaped gifts

There is a routine for a modern Valentine’s Day — you stop by the florist for a bouquet of red roses, grab a heart-shaped box of Russell Stover’s chocolate and fill out a hokey Hallmark card. But not everybody knows why we do it.

Recently, I’ve been wondering what the deal is with Valentine’s Day. I’m secretly a history buff, so I knew this would be fun to look into. I understand being all lovey-dovey every once in a while, and it makes for some much needed fun during these cold mid-winter days, but what was the first Valentine’s Day like, and why even make a day out of it?

Sure, there’s the conspiracy that Valentine’s Day was made up by greeting card companies just so they could make more money, but the tradition goes back much further than that — Ancient Rome to be exact.

During his two-year reign from 268-270 AD, Claudius II decreed that any soldier in the Roman military that is not married shall stay unmarried. He feared marriage would make soldiers soft and unable to fight. Christians were also persecuted at this time and the official religion of the state was a form of Roman Paganism.

Valentine or Valentinus, as he was called back then, was a bishop who did not care for Claudius’s rules. He secretly performed marriages for Centurions and Christians. Unfortunately, Valentine was discovered, imprisoned and executed.

Legend has it that before his execution, Valentine magically healed the eyes of Julia, the blind daughter of his prison guard, Asterius. Valentine and Julia had a close relationship, and at the time of his death, Valentine left a note for Julia with the message, “Your Valentine.” Sound familiar?

I’m not sure how credible Valentine’s miracle healing is, but it makes for a pretty sweet ending to his story.

Later in the 5th century, Pope Gelasius declared Valentine a saint and made a holiday in his memory. By the 1300s in England, people actually started practicing the Valentine’s Day traditions we know today. They gave flowers and wrote love letters, they even exchanged heart-shaped pieces of paper.

So, when you think about it, the meaning of Valentine’s Day really hasn’t changed all that much. Halloween has us dressing up like Iron Man and Playboy bunnies while binging on sugary candies and beer. Christmas makes us almost kill each other trying to find the best holiday deals on Blu-ray players.

Not to say I don’t like Halloween and Christmas — they’re my favorites right behind St. Patrick’s Day — but Valentine’s Day seems like the only one that doesn’t deviate too much from its original ways. This celebration of love seems as authentic as it was hundreds of years ago, even if it has turned into a multi-billion dollar industry.

So next time you think about why we exchange heart-shaped chocolates and write love letters in the middle of winter, remember it’s all because an ancient Roman cared so much about love that he was willing to die for it.

Email Griffin Kelly at

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