(This is a love letter sent by Emily Dickinson's sister. So pretty!)
Like most western holidays, Valentine's Day originated with the actions of a saint. Unlike most holidays, no one - not even the Catholic church - is completely clear on which saint this was. Currently, the Catholic church used Saint Valentine's Day to recognize at least three different saints who were martyred (apparently all on February 14th - though that can't be true... can it?), all with names similar to Valentine.
However, most assume that the main Saint Valentine of "Saint Valentine's Day" was a cleric in the 3rd century AD. Here is the story:
In Rome, around 270 AD, Emperor Claudius II decreed that single men were no longer allowed to get married, since single men made better soldiers than men with familial attachments. A priest named Valentine decided this decree was unjust and defied the emperor by performing marriages in secret - for this, he was known as the "friend of lovers". When his actions were discovered, he was sentenced to death.
While in awaiting his demise in prison, one of Valentine's jailors approached him and asked for a miracle (seems unlikely, but hey - the guy was a saint, after all). This jailor had a blind daughter and asked that Valentine restore her sight - and apparently, we know not how, Valentine accomplished this.
This miracle gained Valentine an audience with the emperor, who offered him his freedom if he would stop performing marriages and accept the Roman pantheon, rejecting his Christian beliefs. Valentine refused all of it and was promptly sent back to prison.
In the meanwhile, Valentine had also formed a "deep friendship" with the now sighted daughter of his jailor, who was quite bereaved over the idea of his impending demise. To say goodbye, Valentine asked for a pen and paper and wrote her a note, signing it "From your Valentine". Who could have known those last words would become so famous?
He was martyred on February 14th, 270 AD. Pope Gelsius declared this day "St. Valentine's Day" around 498 AD.
That said, this martyred "friend of lovers"did not become the romantic centerpiece he is today until the 14th century, when Chaucer used the image of birds mating as a symbol of lovers entwined in carnal embrace in his poem "The Parliament of Fowls", dedicated to Valentine's Day: "For this was on St. Valentine's Day, When every fowl cometh there to choose his mate."
Once more, the Church's holy-day had been smeared by a poet from something saintly to something earthy and pleasure-ridden. Such is humanity.
In the 18th century, the tradition of gift-giving and giving hand-made cards decorated with ribbons, lace, and hearts was in full swing. But the now-common recognition of the holiday - purchased greeting cards - didn't come about until the 1840s. These were invented by Esther A. Howland, who became known as the Mother of the Valentine; she designed elaborate cards with real lace and colorful pictures, and produced them en masse in the United States. Esther was the Bill Gates of greeting cards.
(She just looks like a romantic, doesn't she?)
By 1910, the Winsch Publishing Company was mass producing Valentine's Day postcards.
And that, as they say, led to where we are now. According to the Greeting Card Association, these days, 25% of all greetings cards sent in a year are "valentines" - an estimated 1 billion cards a year. (Christmas apparently ranks first with ~2.6 billion a year.) According to the research done by History.com - 85% of these 1 billion valentines cards are sent by women. Interesting, eh?
**Note: All this I have gleaned from open-source research materials. Don't hate me and don't sue me. Thank you.