Contrary to popular belief, Valentine's Day is not entirely the construct of an evil axis led by the florist's guild, les chocolatiers, and a few profit-mongering greeting card conglomerates. Was it made popular by these nefarious forces? No question. But it had a history long before.
It All Started With A Matchmaking Saint...
The Catholic Church recognizes at least three martyred saints called Valentine or Valentinus. The legend most attributed to the holiday, though, is about a man executed by the Roman Emperor Claudius for marrying people clandestinely. The legend further states that Valentine sent the first, well, Valentine—a note to the daughter of his jailer, with whom he was besotted. This, if it occurred, was around 270 AD.
Some scholars conjecture that our current timing for celebrating St. Valentine's Day (mid-February) is a holdover from a Roman fertility celebration that culminated in singles randomly being paired off. Like an Italian key party.
The bones of someone presumed to be St. Valentine were given to an Irish church by Pope Gregory XVI in 1836. You can see the casket any Valentine's Day at Our Lady of Mount Carmel at Whitefriar Street in Dublin. Meanwhile the oldest-known Valentine in existence—sent by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife after his capture during the Battle of Agincourt—is on display in the British Museum.
The Valentine's Day that we celebrate probably kicked off in Great Britain in the 1600s. And Americans probably got into it around the 18th- Century. The first cards to be mass-produced in the US were created by Esther Howland in 1840. This earned her the moniker Mother of the Valentine. She should be called the Mother of Hallmark.
How We Celebrate Today
The Greeting Card Association estimates that 1 billion cards are sent annually. Hallmark claims that 50% of its V-Day cards are bought in the 6 days preceding Feb 14th. 180 million roses were purchased for Valentine's Day in 2005 and accounted for 34% of the annual sales dollars. $2.4 billion was spent on jewelry in February 2005, presumably largely for Valentine's Day. And sadly 15% of flowers are self-sent.