Before Valentine’s Day became the mass-marketed consumer frenzy of a holiday that it is now, it had its roots in ancient Roman history and traditions.
There are varying accounts of how it all began, with one story claiming that the holiday can be traced back to Emperor Claudius II. The Roman ruler banned marriage, claiming that single men made better soldiers. Ever the consummate romantic, a priest named Valentine continued to marry couples against the emperor's will until he was eventually imprisoned for his disobedience. While in jail, Valentine fell in love with a young girl who regularly came to visit him. Right before he died, the priest wrote her a love letter—now referred to as the first ever Valentine.
Others believe that the tradition hails back to the Pagan Lupercalia festival, traditionally celebrated at the beginning of spring for the purposes of purification and encouraging fertility. We won’t go into specifics (practices involved ritual sacrifices and the slapping of women with goat meat) but Pope Gelasius declared February 14th St. Valentine's Day around 498 A.D. in an apparent attempt to “Christianize” the indulgent ritual celebration.
These days, the holiday spells big bucks, but we found the sentimental side of things more intriguing. In Latin America, the holiday serves as more of an excuse to share love and friendship than candy and cards.
In Mexico, they start celebrating right after Christmas (and we thought Americans were V-day crazy!). Jennifer Hirsch, professor of socio-medical sciences at Columbia University, says the gift-giving is an expression of love and prosperity, especially among migrant laborers.
Brazilians celebrate Valentine's Day or Dia dos Namorados on June 12 instead of February 14th. This is to honor Saint Anthony, the patron saint of matchmaking and marriage. There are actually three recognized Catholic saints named Valentine, all of whom died as martyrs. Single women participate in rituals such as writing boys' names on little scraps of paper the night before, then folding them up and opening one on the 12th to determine who they should marry.
They celebrate a similar holiday on February 14th in Guatemala, but it is known as El Día del Cariño. Guatemaltecos exchange sentimental goodies just like we do here in the US, but it is a broader holiday and encourages people to show their love for friends and co-workers, not just significant others.