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Beginnings. Different authorities believe Valentine's Day began in various ways. Some trace it to an ancient Roman festival called Lupercalia. Other experts connect the event with one or more saints of the early Christian church. Still others link it with an old English belief that birds choose their mates on February 14. Valentine's Day probably came from a combination of all three of those sources--plus the belief that spring is a time for lovers.

The ancient Romans held the festival of Lupercalia on February 15 to ensure protection from wolves. During this celebration, young men struck people with strips of animal hide. Women took the blows because they thought that the whipping made them more fertile. After the Romans conquered Britain in A.D. 43, the British borrowed many Roman festivals. Many writers link the festival of Lupercalia with Valentine's Day because of the similar date and the connection with fertility.

The early Christian church had at least two saints named Valentine. According to one story, the Roman Emperor Claudius II in the A.D. 200's forbade young men to marry. The emperor thought single men made better soldiers. A priest named Valentine disobeyed the emperor's order and secretly married young couples. Another story says Valentine was an early Christian who made friends with many children. The Romans imprisoned him because he refused to worship their gods. The children missed Valentine and tossed loving notes between the bars of his cell window. This tale may explain why people exchange messages on Valentine's Day.

According to still another story, Valentine restored the sight of his jailer's blind daughter. Many stories say that Valentine was executed on February 14 about A.D. 269. In A.D. 496, Saint Pope Gelasius I named February 14 as St. Valentine's Day. In Norman French, a language spoken in Normandy during the Middle Ages, the word galantine sounds like Valentine and means gallant or lover. This resemblance may have caused people to think of St. Valentine as the special saint of lovers. The earliest records of Valentine's Day in English tell that birds chose their mates on that day. People used a different calendar before 1582, and February 14 came on what is now February 24. Geoffrey Chaucer, an English poet of the 1300's, wrote in The Parliament of Fowls, "For this was on St. Valentine's Day, / When every fowl cometh there to choose his mate."

Shakespeare also mentioned this belief in A Midsummer Night's Dream. A character in the play discovers two lovers in the woods and asks, "St. Valentine is past; / Begin these woodbirds but to couple now?" Early Valentine customs. People in England probably celebrated Valentine's Day as early as the 1400's. Some historians trace the custom of sending verses on Valentine's Day to a Frenchman named Charles, Duke of Orleans. Charles was captured by the English during the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. He was taken to England and put in prison. On Valentine's Day, he sent his wife a rhymed love letter from his cell in the Tower of London. Many Valentine's Day customs involved ways that single women could learn who their future husbands would be. Englishwomen of the 1700's wrote men's names on scraps of paper, rolled each in a little piece of clay, and dropped them all into water. The first paper that rose to the surface supposedly had the name of a woman's true love. Also in the 1700's, unmarried women pinned five bay leaves to their pillows on the eve of Valentine's Day. They pinned one leaf to the center of the pillow and one to each corner. If the charm worked, they saw their future husbands in their dreams.

In Derbyshire, a county in central England, young women circled the church 3 or 12 times at midnight and repeated such verses as: I sow hempseed. Hempseed I sow. He that loves me best, Come after me now. Their true loves then supposedly appeared. One of the oldest customs was the practice of writing women's names on slips of paper and drawing them from a jar. The woman whose name was drawn by a man became his valentine, and he paid special attention to her. Many men gave gifts to their valentines. In some areas, a young man gave his valentine a pair of gloves. Wealthy men gave fancy balls to honor their valentines. One description of Valentine's Day during the 1700's tells how groups of friends met to draw names. For several days, each man wore his valentine's name on his sleeve. The saying wearing his heart on his sleeve probably came from this practice.

The custom of sending romantic messages gradually replaced that of giving gifts. In the 1700's and 1800's, many stores sold handbooks called valentine writers. These books included verses to copy and various suggestions about writing valentines. Commercial valentines were first made in the early 1800's. Many of them were blank inside, with space for the sender to write a message. The British artist Kate Greenaway became famous for her valentines in the late 1800's. Many of her cards featured charming pictures of happy children and lovely gardens. Esther A. Howland, of Worcester, Massachusetts, became one of the first U.S. manufacturers of valentines. In 1847, after seeing a British valentine, she decided to make some of her own. She made samples and took orders from stores. Then she hired a staff of young women and set up an assembly line to produce the cards. One woman glued on paper flowers, another added lace, and another painted leaves. Howland soon expanded her business into a $100,000-a-year enterprise. Many valentines of the 1800's were hand painted. Some featured a fat cupid or showed arrows piercing a heart. Many cards had satin, ribbon, or lace trim. Others were decorated with dried flowers, feathers, imitation jewels, mother-of-pearl, sea shells, or tassels. Some cards cost as much as $10. From the mid-1800's to the early 1900's, many people sent comic valentines called penny dreadfuls. These cards sold for a penny . Many penny dreadfuls and other old valentines have become collectors' items.

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