The History of Valentine's Day: The Legends of Saint Valentine

Updated on February 10, 2018
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Angela loves history and feels it is essential to our future to know the past or else be destined to repeat it.

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Lupercalia

Red roses, chocolate candy hearts, romantic movies, and cards that say sweet nothings are all hallmarks of Valentine's Day. This holiday has become popular around the world; such countries as the United States, Canada, Britain, Australia, Argentina, Mexico, and France all celebrate this day. Because of the association with love and romance, it has become the most common wedding anniversary. In the Philippines, they even have hundreds of couples that gather together and have a mass wedding on that day. So why is this day considered a romantic holiday? Where did it originate? Why is it called Valentine's Day?

Some believe it originated from a Roman fertility rite that was known more for its drunken carnal happenings than sweet moments. The rite was originally called Lupercalia and was always celebrated in the middle of February, because the middle of February was believed to be when the birds began to mate and spring was near. It was a celebration to enjoy the coming of spring and fertility.

They would begin the festival at a sacred cave that the infants Romulus and Remus, the supposed founders of Rome, were believed to have been raised by lupa, a she-wolf. The priests would sacrifice a goat for fertility and a dog for purification. They would stake the goat's hide and cut it into strips, then dip it into sacrificial blood. Then they would run around and slap the crops and even the women with the bloody goat hide believing they were encouraging fertility. Men and women would often pair off during the festivities.

When the Roman Empire became a Christian nation rather than Pagan, Lupercalia became outlawed, because it was deemed to be "un-Christian." Then at the end of the 5th century, Pope Gelasius declared February 14th as St. Valentine's Day. Although Lupercalia was outlawed, some still participated in it, so St. Valentine's Day and Lupercalia ended up blending into one celebration. Noel Lenski described the transformation best when he said, "It was a little more of a drunken revel, but the Christians put clothes back on it."

An image depicting Lupercalia and the men taking the bloody goat's hide and slapping them on the women to increase fertility.
An image depicting Lupercalia and the men taking the bloody goat's hide and slapping them on the women to increase fertility. | Source

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The Man Who Defied the Emperor

So who was this man Pope Gelasius wanted to honor; this St Valentine?

It is believed that there may have actually been two possibly even three different men named Valentine or Valentinus. Due to the same name, their identities have merged into one identity that we collectively refer to as Saint Valentine. It is not easy to separate the stories as they often end up overlapping one another.

One of these men, as legend has it, dared defy the order of Emperor Claudius II. The Emperor declared that Roman soldiers should not marry, because he believed that single men were better soldiers. Saint Valentine, a priest from the 3rd century, felt this decree was unjust. He defied the emperor by performing marriage ceremonies in secret for Roman soldiers. Another variation of this story is that he performed marriages in order to keep men from having to serve as soldiers and going to war. Either way, this was an act of treason against the decree.

This act of defiance angered the emperor and he beheaded Valentine on February 14th. His beheading occurred around the same time the celebration of Lupercalia, which caused the two to become associated with one another.

Many Roman men were inspired by Valentine's faithfulness to marriage and in honor of him decided to draw names of eligible ladies out of an urn during this holiday. Then the couple would pair off and spent the year getting to know one another. This often led to marriage. This custom spread across Europe, even in Germany and England.

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The First Valentine

Because many of the legends of St. Valentine overlap, the story of the first Valentine is often part of the above story. Some believe this was a different man.

This Valentine was martyred because he wanted to protect others. During the third century, Christians were being imprisoned, tortured, and beaten and sent to Roman prisons. Valentine could not bear to see this happen, so he plotted and succeeded in freeing many of these prisoners. When this was discovered, he was instantly imprisoned and his death was planned. Before he was killed while still in jail, he met and befriended the jailer's daughter. Some say he healed her from blindness and was capable of performing other miracles. But he fell in love with this woman, and before he was killed he wrote her a letter and signed it, "from your Valentine." This took place in mid-February in A.D. 270, and is believed to be why we sign our own cards this way today.

History of the Holidays: History of Valentines Day

Chaucer's Influence on Valentine's Day

Regardless of who the man (or men) was, Geoffrey Chaucer, an English poet during the Middle Ages, had a great influence over the holiday. Some will even argue that there is no evidence that Valentine's Day was celebrated until after Chaucer wrote "Parlement of Foules," which was the first poem on record to reference the day. In it he wrote, “For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day / When every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.” This officially cemented the idea that Valentine's Day was a day of romance.

Some often wonder why did he choose Valentine as his muse? Was it because the day was already celebrated in such a way? This may have been true, but some believe he connected that particular saint with romance because it was convenient artistically. He chose the name St. Valentine, because it was more pleasing to say than some of the other Saints that were well celebrated, such as St. Austrebertha or St. Eorminhild. Eorminhild Day just does not have the same ring to it.

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Valentine's Day Today

There are many theories as to who Saint Valentine was and why we have a day celebrating him that deals more with love and romance than saintly behavior. The truth most likely lies somewhere in between all the stories combined.

Yet today, it has evolved into one of the biggest spending holidays of the year, celebrated by buying cards and sending sweet messages to our loved ones. Formal messages are believed to have begun on this holiday in the 1500s, because the oldest valentine that still exists today was written in 1415. Charles, Duke of Orleans, wrote a poem for his wife, while he was imprisoned after being captured during the Battle of Agincourt.

The tradition continued and in the 1700s, commercially printed cards began. They depicted Cupid, the Roman god of love, as well as hearts, which is why today you often see pictures of this saint with winged cherubs.

Now today, there are approximately 1 billion cards sent through the postal service each year. This does not include the millions given in school classrooms, between couples in person, and the millions of other cards exchanged in person.

Despite the popularity of the holiday, it's origins still remain a mystery. They all do contain a man who valued romantic love and dying for his beliefs.

Cited Works

  • History.com Staff. "History of Valentine's Day." History.com. 2009. Accessed February 07, 2018. http://www.history.com/topics/valentines-day/history-of-valentines-day.
  • Stack, Liam. "Valentine's Day: Did It Start as a Roman Party or to Celebrate an Execution?" The New York Times. February 14, 2017. Accessed February 07, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/14/style/valentines-day-facts-history.html.
  • The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. "Valentine's Day." Encyclopædia Britannica. January 19, 2018. Accessed February 07, 2018. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Valentines-Day.https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/topics/v/valentines-day/.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Angela Michelle Schultz

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      • louise-barraco profile image

        Louise Barraco 

        2 months ago from Ontario

        Interesting history of Valentines Day I have a hub called Red, White and Pink Heart Day that is nothing like this I loved reading the information and stories you have here.

      • Venkatachari M profile image

        Venkatachari M 

        5 months ago from Hyderabad, India

        Interesting stories and information about Valentine's Day.

        Thanks for sharing them.

      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 

        5 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        A wonderful story. I lean toward a holiday to market.

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