The History of Valentine’s Day
Like many of our modern holidays, Valentine’s day is a mix of Christian and pagan traditions.
There actually are three saints named Valentine (Valentinus) currently recognized by the Roman Catholic Church. All three lived in the late third century during the reign of the Roman Emperor Claudius II. It is unclear which one is THE Valentine who inspired the holiday.
In fact, virtually nothing is known about these men at all. The stories that surround them almost certainly were the creations of medieval poets, who obsessed on the idea of romantic love.
In one of the stories, Valentine is said to have defied the Emperor Claudius’s ban on marriages. Claudius, it seems, had decided that single men made better soldiers. After Valentine was discovered performing marriage ceremonies anyway, he was executed.
A related tale says that, while Valentine was in prison awaiting his execution, he fell in love with the jailor’s daughter. Before going to his death, he penned a letter which he signed “From Your Valentine” — the first Valentine card.
Another version says that he had not fallen in love with her, but rather, had converted the girl to the Christian faith. The letter was an exhortation to keep the faith.
Another, less romantic tale, says that Valentine was martyred for helping Christians escape from Roman prisons.
At any rate, legend has it that Valentine was beheaded — or beaten to death and then beheaded — on February 14.
But that most likely is pure fancy. February 14 more likely is the date of Valentine’s Day because that was when the Roman Feast of Lupercalia was held.
Lupercalia was a fertility festival, which sources contend was held on either February 14th or 15th. During the festival, young women would put their names into a big urn. The young men then would then pick a name form the urn; they would be paired with that woman for a year.
As part of the purification ceremony, priests of Lupercus, the God of Fertility would sacrifice goats, and then sally forth through the city street, wielding bloody goat skins. Young women would come forth to be slapped by the skins, for that was said to ensure their fertility.
In 498 AD, Pope Gelasisus declared February 14 to be St. Valentine’s Day. It is said that he did so to co-opt and Christianize the Roman pagan tradition of Lupercalia. Choosing lovers at random through a lottery, and slapping people with the remnants of goat sacrifices did not seem to be good Christian practice.
To replace the lottery for young women, Gelasisus instructed the people to put names of the Saints in the jar. Young men and women would then draw out hte names; they were to emulate virtuous behavior of that Saint throughout the following year.
Given the martyrdom of so many of the early saints, it’s no wonder this idea didn’t catch on. The idea was especially unpopular among the young men of Rome, who had looked forward to the romantic couplings. It is said that they dodged the edict by sending messages to their loved ones in the name of Valentine — another origin of the line “From Your Valentine.”
During the Middle Ages, Valentine was — along with Nicholas — the most popular of the Saints. His association with romantic love made his legend fertile ground for troubadours entertaining the ladies of the courts.
Two medieval writers make specific references to Valentine’s Day”
In Geofffrey Chaucer’s (of Canterbury Tales fame)Parliament of Foules, the poet wrote:
For this was on seynt Valentynes day,
Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make,
Of every kinde, that men thenke may;
And that so huge a noyse gan they make,
That erthe and see, and tree, and every lake
So ful was, that unnethe was ther space
For me to stonde, so ful was al the place.
Somewhat later, John Lydgate wrote:
A balade made in wyse of chesing loues at Saint Valentynes Day
It was during this period that the word “Valentine” came to be associated with a love note. By the 17th century, the term also was extended to any gift given to a lover on that day.
Valentine’s Day came to North America with British colonists. It is unlikely — given their aversion to celebrations of any kind — that it arrived in Puritan New England. These are, after all, the people who banned Christmas.
Ironically, the first commercially available cards were sold in the mid-1800s by Esther Howland of Worcester, Massachusetts (surely, the Puritan fathers were turning in their graves). She apparently was inspired by an English Valentine that she had received.
During the 20th century, the holiday has been siezed upon by marketers, selling billions of dollars in cards, flowers, perfume and jewelry. As a result, St. Valentine’s Day has been secularized to “Valentine’s Day.”
The Roman Catholic Church removed St. Valentine’s day as an official holiday in 1969.