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History of the holiday: Valentine's Day and Ash Wednesday - KRISTV.com | Continuous News Coverage | Corpus Christi

History of the holiday: Valentine's Day and Ash Wednesday

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Wednesday, February 14th, marks both Valentine's Day AND Ash Wednesday - a phenomenon that won't happen again until 2024. In fact, this hasn't happened since 1945. And though some argue that the two holidays have very separate meanings, others say that they both revolve around a central theme - love. But what is the true meaning behind the two?


Valentine's Day: 

Valentine's Day is celebrated in the United States, Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, France and Australia. We celebrate the holiday today by exchanging candy, flowers, and gifts with our loved ones, but Americans likely didn't begin exchanging hand-made valentines until the early 1700's. According to the Greeting Card Association, an estimated 1 billion Valentine's Day cards are sent each year, making Valentine's Day the second largest card-sending holiday of the year behind Christmas.

Valentines For Veterans

As we know it today, the Valentine's Day contains vestiges of both Christian and ancient Roman tradition - similar to Ash Wednesday. According to History.com, the centuries-old holiday revolves around Saint Valentine. The Catholic Church itself recognizes at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom were martyred.

  • One legend contends that Valentine was a priest who performed marriages for young lovers in secret, when soldiers were outlawed from being married. When Valentine's actions were discovered, he was put to death.
  • Other stories suggest that Valentine may have been killed for attempting to help Christians escape harsh Roman prisons. According to one legend, an imprisoned Valentine actually sent the first "valentine" greeting himself after he fell in love with a young girl. Before his death, it is alleged that he wrote her a letter signed "From your Valentine," an expression that is still in use today.
  • Others claim that the Christian church may have decided to place St. Valentine's feast day in the middle of February in an effort to "Christianize" the pagan celebration of Lupercalia. Lupercalia was a fertility festival in which priests would sacrifice a goat, for fertility, and a dog, for purification. They then gently slapped women and crop fields with the goat hide - a practice believed to make them more fertile. The young women would later place their names in a big urn, from which the city's bachelors would each choose a name. Lupercalia was outlawed as "un-Christian" at the end of the 5th century, when Pope Gelasius declared February 14th St. Valentine's Day.

It was not until much later, however, that the day became definitively associated with love. During the Middle Ages, it was commonly believed in France and England that February 14 was the beginning of birds' mating season, which added to the idea that the middle of Valentine's Day should be a day for romance.


Ash Wednesday: 

Meanwhile, Ash Wednesday is inextricably linked to Easter. It marks the beginning of the Lent penance period that ends on that important Christian holiday. But, even though the Easter story takes place in biblical times, the traditions of Ash Wednesday aren't quite that old.

According to Time.com, the practice of Ash Wednesday dates back to the 11th Century. In the book of Daniel, fasting is associated with ashes, so ashes are associated with penance, which is the dominant theme of Lent.

Ashes to Go

But the most familiar Ash Wednesday observance-the ash crosses worn on the foreheads of many churchgoers-hasn't always been acknowledged by all branches of Christianity. It wasn't until a few decades ago that the tradition became widespread in the United States

In the 1970s, Ash Wednesday became an opportunity for a multi-sensory way of connecting faith to the body. Many American Christians at the time decided to begin wearing an outward physical mark of their spiritual lives. The ash used for Ash Wednesday is made of palm branches used on the previous Palm Sunday, when Christians carry palms in a nod to the Gospels' reference to Jesus' path being covered in palm fronds on the day he entered Jerusalem. Occasionally the ashes are mixed with oil so they stay on congregants' foreheads for longer.

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