February is the time when flowers and gifts are exchanged between loved ones, all in the name of St. Valentine. The history of Valentine’s Day, and its patron saint, is shrouded in mystery.

St. Valentine’s Day, as we know it today, contains vestiges of both Christian and ancient Roman tradition and the Catholic Church recognizes at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom were martyred.

One legend is that Valentine was a priest during the third century in Rome. Emperor Claudius II, believing that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, outlawed marriage for young men.

Valentine defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered him put to death

Other stories suggest that Valentine may have been killed for helping Christians escape from Roman prisons where they were often beaten and tortured.

Some believe that Valentine actually sent the first ‘valentine’ greeting himself when, in prison, he fell in love with a young girl, possibly the jailor’s daughter, who visited him during his confinement. Before his death, it is alleged that he wrote her a letter, signing it ‘From your Valentine,’ an expression that is still in use today.

The truth behind the Valentine legends is somewhat murky, but the stories certainly emphasize his appeal as a sympathetic, heroic, and romantic figure. By the Middle Ages, Valentine was one of the most popular saints in England and France

The decision to celebrate Valentine’s Day in the middle of February also has two plausible origins. One is to commemorate the anniversary of Valentine’s death or burial, probably around 270 A.D, the other being an attempt by the Christian church to ‘christianize’ celebrations of the pagan Lupercalia festival.

In ancient Rome, February was the official beginning of spring and was a time for purification. Spring cleaning. Houses were ritually cleansed by sweeping them out and sprinkling salt and a type of wheat called ‘spelt’ throughout their interiors.

Lupercalia, which began at the ides of February, February 15, was a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, as well as to the Roman founders Romulus and Remus.

To begin the festival, members of the Luperci, an order of Roman priests, would gather at the sacred cave where the infants Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were believed to have been cared for by a she-wolf.

The priests would then sacrifice a goat, for fertility, and a dog, for purification. Boys then sliced the goat’s hide into strips, dipped them in the sacrificial blood and took to the streets, gently slapping both women and fields of crops with the strips.

Roman women welcomed being touched with the hides because it was believed the strips would make them more fertile in the coming year.

Later in the day, according to legend, all the young women in the city would place their names in a big urn. The city’s bachelors would then each choose a name out of the urn and become paired for the year with his chosen woman. These matches often ended in marriage.

Pope Gelasius declared February 14th to be St. Valentine’s Day in about 498 A.D. The Roman ‘lottery’ system for romantic pairing was deemed un-Christian and outlawed.

During the Middle Ages, it was commonly believed in France and England that February 14th was the beginning of birds’ mating season, which added to the idea that the middle of February, Valentine’s Day, should be a day for romance.

The oldest known valentine still in existence is a poem written by Charles, Duke of Orleans to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt. The greeting, written in 1415, is part of the manuscript collection of the British Library in London.

Several years later, it is believed that King Henry V hired a writer named John Lydgate to compose a valentine note to Catherine of Valois.

In Great Britain, Valentine’s Day began to be popularly celebrated during the seventeenth century, and by the middle of the eighteenth century it was common for friends and lovers in all social classes to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes.

By the end of the century, printed cards began to appear due to improvements in printing technology. Ready-made cards were an easy way for people to express their emotions in a time when direct expression of one’s feelings was discouraged. Cheaper postage rates also contributed to an increase in the popularity of sending Valentine’s Day greetings.

Americans probably began exchanging hand-made valentines in the early 1700s. In the 1840s, Esther A. Howland began to sell the first mass-produced valentines in America.

An estimated one billion valentine cards are sent each year, making Valentine’s Day the second largest card-sending holiday of the year, Christmas being the first with an estimated 2.6 billion cards sent. And 85% of the cards are sent by women.