February 14: Valentine’s Day

Each year, we give and receive cards on Valentine’s Day and see the heart-shaped boxes of candy in stores, but where did these traditions come from? Who was Saint Valentine and why do we devote a day to him?

Ancient Origins

The history is a little murky, with myths and legends overwhelming facts, and several tales mixing together. One of the most popular, and historically plausible, stories takes place in ancient Rome, under the rule of Emperor Claudius II in the third century.

The Roman Empire, which, A.D. 270 , was nearing the end of its domination as a world power, had to maintain a massive army to defend its borders. Claudius decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives or families, so he outlawed marriage for young men.

Valentine was a Catholic priest who considered the ban on marriage to be unjust, and he secretly performed marriages for any young couples who requested it. When Claudius discovered Valentine breaking the law, he had him arrested and sent to prison.

The Catholic Church made Valentine a saint for his sacrifice, and chose February 14, the date of his death, as the day on which he would be honored. Centuries later, in medieval England and France, people believed that February 14 was also the day that many birds, returning for the spring, picked their mates.

A Poetic Beginning

English poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, first put the link between St. Valentine’s Day and romance in writing, with a poem composed in the late 1300s. The fanciful poem has birds discussing everything from politics to love, and ends in praise of Saint Valentine, cementing the idea that Valentine’s Day was the day birds would choose a mate and start their families with the coming warmer weather. To paraphrase:

Saint Valentine, who sits aloft,
The birds all sing for your sake,
We welcome summer, with its sun so soft,
This winter weather to off-shake

From that one mention in that one poem more than 600 years ago, the tradition started. By the mid-1700s, people regularly made and exchanged Valentine’s Day cards, a custom which became popular in America in the mid-1800s when Esther Howland started the New England Valentine Company and began mass-producing Valentine cards. Today, 180 million cards are exchanged each year.

This Valentine’s Day, when you’re giving that special someone a card, remember that you’re taking part in a tradition that got its start over 1,700 years ago!

February 29: Leap Day

This month, February has something you won’t see again for four years. This is a leap year and it has an extra day—a leap day. Instead of the usual 28 days, this year, February will have 29 days, and you won’t see that again until 2024. Why is there an extra day? And, more importantly, what happens if you’re born on February 29? Do you only get a birthday every four years? We have some answers. 

Most years have 365 days, which is the amount of time it takes the Earth to make one trip around the sun—except that it’s not. It actually takes 365.2421 days to make a trip around the sun. If we didn’t add that day every four years, every trip the Earth took around the sun would leave it a little short of where it should be. Over the course of a few hundred years, winter would be in July and August, and summer would be in January and February. 

Leap Year History

The ancient Egyptians were the first to discover the need for an extra day every four years, and that calendar was adopted by the Roman emperor Julius Caesar in 46 B.C. 

The Romans had a calendar that never quite worked, and by the time Julius Caesar decided to adopt the Egyptian calendar, Rome’s calendar was about three months off. Julius Caesar designated the year 46 B.C. as the Year of Confusion and made it 445 days long so that the Roman calendar could get back on track. After that one extremely long year, Julius Caesar mandated a 365-day year, with an extra day every fourth year, which was called the Julian calendar after Julius Caesar, and it worked almost perfectly. Almost.

The Julian calendar still ended up being off by one day every 128 years, which Pope Gregory XIII fixed in 1582 with his Gregorian calendar. Consequently, there is still some monkey business that takes place every few hundred years, but we won’t concern ourselves with that here.

February 29 Birthdays

If you’re lucky—or unlucky—enough to be born on February 29, you have three birthday-celebration options: Celebrate non-leap year birthdays on February 28, celebrate non-leap year birthdays on March 1, or celebrate your birthday every four years on February 29. That last option would mean that someone born on February 29, 2004—instead of celebrating their 16th birthday this month—will be celebrating their fourth birthday. 

February is a great month; it not only has Valentine’s Day, but also Black History month, Super Bowl Sunday, Groundhog Day, Presidents Day, Arizona Statehood Day, and Mardi Gras. And this year, with February getting an extra day, you have an additional 24 hours to celebrate anything you want.