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Valentine's Day: More Than a Hallmark Holiday?

Sending flowers, cards, candy, etc. Are we being fleeced?

She loves me, she loves me not.

Today is Valentine’s Day. While the romantic might jump on yet another opportunity to express their feelings for their immortal beloved, the cynics argue February 14 was concocted as a holiday by a group of sinister portly men who smoked cigars and drank bourbon, all the while wiping juices that dripped down their fat chins from porterhouse steaks while they dined in some dark room at Hallmark headquarters, nefariously plotting how to extract even more money from the not-as-fabulously well-to-do.

And if the latter were true, those men would have come up with a great plan. According to the Greeting Card Association (yes, there is such an association), with an estimated one billion cards sent each year, Valentine's Day ranks just behind Christmas in terms of holiday greeting cards exchanged.

So just how did this holiday come to be?

There are at least three saints named Valentine or Valentinus recognized by the Catholic Church, all of whom were martyred, according to history.com.

"One legend contends that Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome," according to the website. "When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men. 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.

"Other stories suggest that Valentine may have been killed for attempting to help Christians escape harsh Roman prisons, where they were often beaten and tortured. According to one legend, an imprisoned Valentine actually sent the first 'valentine' greeting himself after he fell in love with a young girl — possibly his jailor's daughter — who visited him during his confinement. Before his death, it is alleged that he wrote her a letter signed 'From your Valentine,' an expression that is still in use today. Although the truth behind the Valentine legends is murky, the stories all emphasize his appeal as a sympathetic, heroic and — most importantly — romantic figure."

Some argue that Valentine's Day — officially declared by Pope Gelasis in the year 496 — was created by the Christians to counter the ancient Roman pagan festival of Lupercalia, held from Feb. 13 through Feb. 15.

Over the years, the holiday's popularity gained. In "The Parliament of Fowls," written in 1382, Geoffrey Chaucer provides what scholars say is the first connection of Valentine's Day and romantic love.

So why Valentine's Day cards? In his "Panati's Extraordinary Origins for Everyday Things," written in 1987, George Panati explains the history of the Valentine's Day card.

"The earliest extant card was sent in 1415 by Charles, duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was a prisoner in the Tower of London," he writes. "In the sixteenth century, St. Francis de Sales, bishop of Geneva, attempted to expunge the custom of cards and reinstate the lottery of saints' names. He felt that Christians had become wayward and needed models to emulate. However, this lottery was less successful and shorter-lived than Pope Gelasius's. And rather than disappearing, cards proliferated and became more decorative. Cupid, the naked cherub armed with arrows dipped in love potion, became a popular valentine image. He was associated with the holiday because in Roman mythology he is the son of Venus, goddess of love and beauty.

"By the seventeenth century, handmade cards were oversized and elaborate, while store-bought ones were smaller and costly. In 1797, a British publisher issued 'The Young Man's Valentine Writer,' which contained scores of suggested sentimental verses for the young lover unable to compose his own. Printers had already begun producing a limited number of cards with verses and sketches, called 'mechanical valentines,' and a reduction in postal rates in the next century ushered in the less personal but easier practice of mailing valentines. That, in turn, made it possible for the first time to exchange cards anonymously, which is taken as the reason for the sudden appearance of racy verse in an era otherwise prudishly Victorian. The burgeoning number of obscene valentines caused several countries to ban the practice of exchanging cards. In Chicago, for instance, late in the nineteenth century, the post office rejected some twenty-five thousand cards on the ground that they were not fit to be carried through the U.S. mail."

Who do we have to thank for the ideas behind the cards we buy today in America? Esther Howland — "The Mother of the American Valentine" — who lived in Massachusetts. In the mid-1800s, Howland created what would become the modern Valentine's Day card.

The cynics might be on to something, after all.

In 2009, the holiday generated an estimated $14.7 billion in retail sales in the United States, according to Tom Chivers, who provides a great history of the holiday here.

So romantics: Spoil your loved ones today.

And for the cynics? Backrubs are free.

Editor's note: This article originally was published in 2012 by Weston-Redding Easton Patch.

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