The Enduring Myths and Traditions of St. Valentine’s Day

It’s probably not an accident that Valentine’s Day falls right in the middle of Heart Health Month. Whether you love February 14th or hate it, it’s a hard event to ignore. After Christmas, it’s the largest card-exchanging event of the year, involving close to a billion correspondences. And, like most holidays or celebrations, if you study its history you might find it as interesting as any dramatic series you’d watch on TV.

The celebrations of St. Valentine’s Day are steeped in legend and mystery, and embrace a time of year that is historically associated with love and fertility. It encompasses the sacred marriage of Zeus and Hera in Ancient Athens and the Ancient Roman festival of Lupercus, the god of fertility.

One popular belief is that the first official Saint Valentine’s Day was declared on the 14th of February by Pope Galasius in 496, in memory of a 3rd-century martyred priest in Rome.  According to legend, the young priest rose to distinction after betraying Emperor Claudius in 270 AD by conducting illegitimate wedding ceremonies in the capital. Emperor Claudius claimed that married men made poor soldiers and consequently decreed that all marriages of younger citizens would be outlawed. Bishop Valentine, however, continued to conduct marriages in secret between young people in love.

His success gained him unwelcome notoriety, which became his downfall. He was jailed and ultimately beheaded, but not before he fell in love with the jailer’s daughter. Legend holds that on the evening of his execution, the bishop passed her a note which read “from your Valentine.” This story has blossomed into the defining tradition of Valentine’s Day.

The origin of Valentine’s Day hearts                

Around the 12th century, people were not aware that the heart circulated blood inside the human body. However, they believed that the heart was the seat of emotions and feelings. Poets eulogized the role of the heart in feelings of love and romance, and even though we understand that emotions come from the brain, hearts remain a powerful symbol of love and Valentine’s Day.

The red heart pierced by Cupid’s arrow is a traditional symbol of Valentine’s Day. Hearts symbolize love, and a heart pierced by Cupid’s arrow means that when someone presents a heart, the person takes the risk of being rejected and feeling hurt.

As for Cupid, this winged and mischievous little angel traces its origin from the Roman mythology where Cupid has been described as the son of Venus – the Goddess of Love. In Greek mythology, Cupid is known by the name of Eros and as the son of Aphrodite – the Greek Goddess of Love. In Roman and Greek mythology, Cupid is always shown as a youth and not as a fat baby with wings. In Latin, however, the meaning of the word “Cupid” is desire. Latin mythology shows Cupid as a chubby, naked, winged boy or youth with a mischievous smile. 

On a related historical note, the popular expression, “Wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve,” comes from the tradition prevalent in America and Britain around the 1800s when young men wore slips of paper pinned on their sleeves that had their girlfriend’s name written on them.

So as you prepare for Valentine’s Day this year, remember it really isn’t about shelling out big bucks for fancy dinners, overpriced flowers and chocolate – even though chocolate, especially dark chocolate loaded with antioxidants, is good for our health. It’s about the centuries-old links between hearts and our emotions, about attraction and disappointment and the fragility – and enduring strength – of love and friendship.

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