The 14th of February is Valentine’s Day. Around the world, St. Valentine’s Day is celebrated by exchanging candy, flowers, and gifts between loved ones. What is the origin of these traditions and who is this mysterious saint? Discover the history and meaning of Valentine’s Day, from the ancient Roman ritual Lupercalia to Victorian-era card-giving traditions.
What is the origin of Valentine’s Day? There is a great deal of mystery surrounding the holiday’s history and its patron saint. Valentine’s Day has roots in ancient Roman and Christian traditions, and the month of February has long been celebrated as a month of romance. Why does this ancient rite honor Saint Valentine, and who was he?
At least three martyrs named Valentine or Valentinus are recognized by the Catholic Church. According to legend, Valentine served as a priest in Rome during the third century. In order to make young men better soldiers, Emperor Claudius II outlawed marriage for young men. The decree was unfair, so Valentine defied his decree and married young lovers secretly. Claudius executed Valentine after discovering his actions. There are those who claim that it was Saint Valentine of Terni, a bishop, who is the holiday’s true namesake. Outside of Rome, Claudius II beheaded him as well.
Several accounts suggest that Valentine may have been executed by the Roman authorities for trying to assist Christians who were beaten and tortured in Roman prisons. During his confinement, Valentine fell in love with a young girl who visited him, possibly the daughter of his jailor and sent the first “valentine” greeting himself. A letter signed “From your Valentine” is said to have been written before his death. Despite the murky truth behind Valentine’s legends, all stories emphasize his appeal as a sympathetic, heroic, and—most importantly—romantic figure. The reputation of Valentine led him to become one of the most popular saints in France and England during the Middle Ages.
Its origins can be traced all the way back to pagan festivals in February.
Some people believe that Valentine’s Day is celebrated in February to commemorate Valentine’s death or burial, which probably happened around A.D. 270; however, others believe that the Christian church may have chosen this time to “Christianize” the pagan celebration of Lupercalia. The Lupercalia festival was celebrated on February 15th to honor both the Roman founders Romulus and Remus, as well as Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture.
In ancient Roman tradition, the Luperci, an order of priests, gathered in a sacred cave where a she-wolf is believed to have cared for the infants Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome. For fertility, priests would sacrifice a goat, and for purification, a dog. In addition to dipping the goat’s hides in the sacrificial blood, they would also take to the streets and gently slap both women and crop fields with the goat’s hides. Because Roman women believed that the touch of the hides would make them more fertile in the coming year, they welcomed it rather than being fearful. A big urn was filled with the names of all the young women in the city later in the day, according to legend. During the festival, each bachelor chooses a woman and becomes paired with her for the year. It was common for these matches to lead to marriages.
When Pope Gelasius declared February 14 St. Valentine’s Day at the end of the 5th century, Lupercalia was outlawed as “un-Christian.” It wasn’t until much later that the day became synonymous with love. In the Middle Ages, birds’ mating seasons were believed to begin on February 14, which led to the idea that Valentine’s Day should be a romantic holiday. The English poet Geoffrey Chaucer is credited with proclaiming St. Valentine’s Day as a day of romance in his 1375 work, “Parliament of Foules,” writing, ““For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day / Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.”
The tradition of sending Valentine greetings dates back to the Middle Ages, though written Valentines didn’t appear until after 1400. A poem written by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife in 1415 while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London after being captured at the Battle of Agincourt is the oldest known Valentine still in existence today. (The greeting now resides in the British Library in London, England.) King Henry V later commissioned a Valentine’s note for Catherine of Valois from a writer named John Lydgate.
Cupid: Who Is He?
Many Valentine’s Day cards depict Cupid as a naked cherub who shoots love arrows at unsuspecting lovers. But Cupid’s roots are in Greek mythology as Eros, the Greek god of love. According to some accounts, he was born to Nyx and Erebus, to Aphrodite and Ares, and to Iris and Zephyrus or even to Aphrodite and Zeus (his father and grandfather).
Using golden arrows for love and leaden ones for aversion, Eros manipulates the emotions of Gods and men, according to Greek Archaic poets. His Valentine’s Day cards were not portrayed as the mischievous, chubby child he had become until the Hellenistic period.
Gifts and greetings for Valentine’s Day
The United States is not the only country celebrating Valentine’s Day, as Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, France and Australia also celebrate the holiday. Around the 17th century, Valentine’s Day became popular in Great Britain.
The 18th century saw friends and lovers of all social classes exchanging small tokens of affection or handwritten notes, and by 1900, printing technology began to replace written letters with printed cards. When direct emotional expression was discouraged, ready-made cards were a convenient way to express one’s feelings. As a result of cheaper postage rates, Valentine’s Day greetings became more popular.
The American tradition of exchanging hand-made valentines began in the early 1700s. Esther A. Howland mass produced American valentines for the first time in the 1840s. Known as the “Mother of Valentines,” Howland made elaborate creations using real lace, ribbons, and colorful pictures that she called “scrap.” According to the Greeting Card Association, more than 145 million Valentine’s Day cards are sent each year, making Valentine’s Day the second biggest card-sending holiday (Christmas is the largest).