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My Bloody Valentine

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A few quirky facts about the surprising origins of the day of romantic thrills and frills, pink-and-red frou-frou, and proclamations of forever love, minus the morbidity

Picture yourself in Rome, circa 268-270 AD. Emperor Claudius Gothicus (aka Claudius II) ruled one of the world’s most formidable Empires, and he was bent on expanding its might and power – as well as on defending it from any external threats. As it turned out, everybody wanted a piece of the Roman pie. Hence – get this – men were disallowed from marrying during wartime. And, under Claudius II’s rule, it seemed like it was wartime, all the time!

There were more pressing matters than romance at hand, after all, and the kingdom needed every ounce of masculine fight-might they could get. Claudius II theorized that single men were more valiant and daring, perhaps even more reckless, on the battlefield, without the distraction of a wife and family to temper their valor.

But love will find a way – always. Little did Claudius II know that a bishop by the name of Valentine was performing weddings, in secret. Call him the first hopeless romantic, but poor Valentine paid dearly for his amorous advocacy; though his unfortunate demise gave birth to the celebration loved by starry-eyed lovers the world over: Valentine’s Day.

Bloody origins

Story goes that Bishop Valentine went behind the back of Claudius II, officiating clandestine wedding ceremonies for Christian couples, despite the Emperor’s decree. This went on until Valentine was found out and thrown into jail, a literal prisoner of love.

While incarcerated, however, the bishop made friends with a blind young woman named Julia, the jailor’s daughter. Historical accounts say that the bishop, a devout and faithful man, prayed for Julia, whose sight was then miraculously restored. Julia and Bishop Valentine went on to become dear friends; a friendship which was, alas, doomed at the hand of the Emperor.

Claudius II ordered the execution of Valentine – and it was to be tragic and cruel: death by beating (some accounts have it as scourging), stoning, and decapitation. Before the sentence was carried out, though, Valentine wrote a note to Julia, delivered by the jailor himself. The note was signed “from your Valentine.” And, with those last words, the Valentine’s tradition was born.

Julia was said to have planted a tree with pink blossoms by Bishop Valentine’s grave, in his honor, paving the way for the popularity of pink flowers as a Valentine’s token. Eventually, the Catholic Church pronounced Bishop Valentine a martyr and saint, and observed a day in his honor.

Pancake-and-ketchup induced dreams

On a lighter, more ludicrous note, Medieval times witnessed the onset of strange Valentine’s food customs. Forget about fancy steak-and-wine dinners – young maidens longing for a spouse would consume oddities, such as pancakes slathered with ketchup, before bedtime on the eve of Valentine’s Day. They believed that this would bring dreams of their future spouse. The practice (and the indigestion, presumably) continued to the 17th century, but the food of choice was hard boiled eggs. Young women also pinned five bay leaves to their pillows, to aid in the dream process.

The evolution of XOX

As the Valentine’s Day tradition evolved, it was considered bad luck to sign a Valentine’s card; perhaps because the last guy who did it lost his head for love – again, literally speaking. So, by the time the Victorian era rolled around, notes of endearment were penned and given unsigned, or sealed with a kiss, an “X,” or a fingerprint.

As we all know, it is very common to this day for people to include X’s and O’s in their Valentine’s greetings: XOXOXO. People have used these symbols for years, no longer out of fear that bad luck will taint their love, but to denote hugs (O) and kisses (X). These two letters, written together, have become a sign of endearment, year-round.

But have you ever wondered why X and O? Why not two other random letters? Some historical references say that the widespread illiteracy of many Christians in the Middle Ages caused them to sign documents with an X. It was a simple enough mark to make, as well as an allusion to the Cross of Christ. Then, the signee of the document would kiss the X, as a token of their sincerity and their oath. Hence, X=kiss.

The journey of O is not as traceable, but historians believe it dates back to the days of the Jews of Diaspora. Jewish immigrants would simply sign their documents with an O, in place of the Christian X. Other accounts say that O represents the “hugs” part of the equation as the letter looks like arms, stretched out in a closed circle, as in a tight embrace.

From XOX to XXX?

Fast forward to the 19th century, and Valentine’s took a turn for the torrid. The Bishop himself probably rolled in his grave, as the era saw a rise in the popularity of raunchy Valentine’s Day cards. In fact, in the US, the Chicago post office once rejected more than 25,000 cards because they were too indecent to be carried via US Mail. Humorous greeting cards, known as “Vinegar Valentines,” were likewise all the rage during that time.

Moving on, greeting card conglomerate, Hallmark, came out with its first Valentine in 1913 – and the rest is multi-billion dollar history. Second only to Christmas, Valentine’s Day is among the top greeting card holidays. In the US, for instance, a whopping 1 billion Valentine’s cards are exchanged every year, and that’s just an approximation.

From bloody noble origins of martyrdom to the commercial holiday it has become today, Valentine’s has most certainly changed its heart-shaped face. Yet, as with anything, the true beauty of the season lies not in the frilly trappings, but in the sincere, simple expressions of its spirit.