Valentine’s Day may be no mystery to most, but the history of Valentine’s Day often is. Every year, February 14th finds love on the minds of people all over the world to one degree or another. Flowers, candy, and other gifts are exchanged by couples and loved ones. Those that are unattached may feel moved to take the initiative with someone they admire from afar. Even those that want nothing to do with love can celebrate their singlehood with extra fervor this time of year.
All of it is done in the name of St. Valentine, but who was St. Valentine anyway? Where did some of the traditions we associate with Valentine’s Day get their start and how did they evolve into the beloved rituals we look forward to today? Here we’ll take a look at the answers to those question and more.
So What is the History of Valentine’s Day?
Who Was St. Valentine?
The identity of St. Valentine himself is shrouded in mystery. The Catholic Church recognizes the sainthood of no fewer than three separate people with the name Valentinus or Valentine. Each of the three died a martyr, as the Valentine of legend was said to have done, and any one of them could have been the Valentine we celebrate on February 14th. There are also multiple possibilities as to where Valentine’s association with love, couples, and romance originated.
One legend speculates that St. Valentine was a priest who lived in Rome during the third century. The emperor at the time decided that men made better soldiers when they didn’t have wives or children back home to worry about. Marriage was outlawed as a result. Valentine, on the other hand, found this to be profoundly unfair and continued to marry couples in secret. He would eventually be put to death for it once his actions came to light.
Still, more stories say that Valentine was killed for helping Christians escape the torture and regular beatings that took place in the Roman prisons of the day. Yet another story paints Valentine as a prisoner who sent the world’s first “valentine” greeting when he fell in love with the jailer’s daughter. However, all of the stories represent St. Valentine as a brave, heroic, and tenderhearted figure who believed strongly in the power and importance of love.
The Pagan Origins of Valentine’s Day
It’s generally accepted that we celebrate Valentine’s Day in mid-February because that’s the anniversary of Valentine’s death (and therefore his ascent into sainthood). However, while that’s certainly a possibility, it’s just as likely that the Christian church chose that timing as a way to “Christianize” a long-standing pagan celebration called Lupercalia.
Lupercalia was an ancient fertility festival in honor of Faunus, the Roman god of farming and agriculture, as well as father to famous twins, Romulus and Remus. It was celebrated at the ides of February, the 15th of the month. The festival opened when an order of Roman priests called the Luperci would gather near the sacred cave where Romulus and Remus, founders of Rome, were said to have been born and subsequently nurtured by a she-wolf.
Both a dog (for purification) and a goat (for fertility) were then sacrificed. Afterward, the hide of the goat would be cut into strips and dipped in the sacrificial blood. The priest would then go up and down the streets gently slapping women with the strips. (They would do the same with the crop fields and, some say, the livestock as well.) The ancient Romans believed that the touch of the bloodied strips would bring fertility and abundance in the year to come.
Finally, later on in the day, each eligible young woman in Rome would place her name in a large urn. The eligible young men of the city would then each select one of the names in order to be paired with the associated woman. Often, those matches would end in marriage.
Naturally, a strange and bloody ritual like Lupercalia was eventually outlawed by the Christian church. Pope Gelasius himself would decide that February 14th, the day before Lupercalia, was St. Valentine’s Day as a way of shifting the focus of the public. However, it’s commonly believed that the day wouldn’t come to be associated with love and romance specifically until the Middle Ages when people noted that February 14th also marked the beginning of the birds’ mating season.
The Origins of Modern Valentine’s Day Celebrations
One of the signature ways modern people celebrate Valentine’s Day is by sending love letters, cards, or other greetings. Such greetings have been shown to be popular as far back as the Middle Ages. However, the first greeting that bears a resemblance to what we picture today would officially be sent in 1415 from the Duke of Orleans to his wife while he was a prisoner in the Tower of London after the Battle of Agincourt.
Regardless of its origins, Valentine’s Day as we know it today is a beloved occasion that is celebrated in many countries around the world including Australia, the United Kingdom, France, Mexico, and Canada. It would become widely celebrated by the middle of the 17th century or so. By the middle of the 18th century, it had become customary across all social classes to send “valentines” and purchase small gifts for lovers and friends as a way to celebrate.
The valentine card we’re familiar with today would rise to popularity in 1900, thanks to vast improvements in printing technology around that time. Printed cards were also a very good fit for the decorum of the day that usually discouraged expression of one’s emotions. The average postage rate would also decline around this time, helping the sending of cards through the post to become a popular tradition.
According to the Greeting Card Association, a whopping 1 billion valentines are sent each and every year. This makes Valentine’s Day the second biggest card-sending holiday of the calendar year. (Christmas is naturally the first, with 2.6 billion cards sent.) Data also shows that the majority of Valentine’s Day cards – about 85% – are sent by women.
Like many popular holidays, St. Valentine’s Day comes attached to a complicated, multi-layered history that raises almost as many questions as it answers. However, it remains society’s favorite way to honor, celebrate, and spread love. How will you be celebrating this year?
Guest post: Harry is the content manager over at Arcadia Publishing. While he spends most of his time being a bookworm, he enjoys anything outdoors especially if it involves the water.