It’s February 14th and that can only mean one thing – it’s Valentine’s Day and love is in the air! Around the world sweets, flowers and gifts will be exchanged between loved ones, all in the name of St.Valentine. But who is this mysterious saint and where did these traditions come from?
As it turns out, nobody really knows the true history behind this storied holiday, nor do any of the theories completely check out. Even historians find themselves arguing over the exact traditions from which the present-day holiday takes inspiration. But we can still get a vague idea of the history of this day.
I’m not confirming anything here, but the backstory behind Valentine’s Day is actually quite dark and even a bit bloody. Strange traditions, pagan rituals, and grisly executions abound. If you’re not faint of heart, though, you’ll enjoy learning about everything I’ve compiled here. Hope you all enjoy!
So Who was St. Valentine?
First things first, it’s important to start off with who actually was St.Valentine. Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple answer to this question. This is because, even though the day gets its name from a famous saint, there are several stories of who he was.
The most popular belief about St Valentine is that he was a priest from Rome in the third century AD. But the Catholic Church recognises at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, and they were all martyred. So, how do we know which one was the actual one for the day?
Well as said, the popular belief is the priest that served during the third century in Rome. The story behind is as follows: Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers compared to men who had wives and families. Because of this, he decided to outlaw marriage for young men. Valentine, saw the injustice of this decree, so secretly continued to perform marriages for young lovers.
His actions were discovered though, and Claudius ordered him to be put to death in 270 CE. He wasn’t the only Valentine to be put to death by Claudius II though. There was St. Valentine of Terni, a bishop, who was the true namesake of the holiday. He, too, was beheaded by Claudius II outside Rome. It possible that these two saints were actually the same person though.
To make things more confusing, there were other stories about Valentine. This one, in my mind, is a little far fetched but it’s still interesting. So, this story goes that Valentine may have been killed for attempting to help Christians escape harsh Roman prisons, where they were often beaten and tortured. One legend says that an imprisoned Valentine actually sent the first “valentine” greeting himself after he fell in love with a young girl – possibly his jailor’s daughter – who visited him during his confinement.
Before his death, it is alleged that he wrote her a letter signed “From your Valentine,” an expression that is still in use today. Although the truth behind the Valentine legends is murky, the stories all emphasize his appeal as a sympathetic, heroic and—most importantly—romantic figure. By the Middle Ages, perhaps thanks to this reputation, Valentine would become one of the most popular saints in England and France.
Why Do We Celebrate Valentine’s Day in February?
So even though we know the “story” behind who Valentine is, it still doesn’t explain why we celebrate Valentine’s Day in February. Some people think that is to commemorate the anniversary of Valentine’s death or burial. But there’s no concrete proof for that.
Other people claim that the Christian church may have decided to place St.Valentine’s feast day in the middle of February to help “Christianise” the pagan celebration of Lupercalia. This was a festival that was celebrated on the 15th February. It was a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, as well as to the Roman founders, Romulus and Remus.
This festival was an interesting one to read about. A little bit gruesome, but I suppose things like sacrificing a goat was a normal thing back then. Basically at this festival, members of the Luperci, an order of Roman priests, would gather at the cave that Romulus and Remus had been cared for by the she-wolf or lupa (supposedly).
They would sacrifice a goat for fertility and a dog for purification. But the gross thing is (well for me anyway), is that they would strip the goat’s hide and then dip them in the sacrificial blood. The priests would then take the strips out into the street and gently slap women and the crops in the field with it.
Since this was the accepted fashion back then the women just accepted it and since they believed it made them more fertile it makes sense that they were happy to accept it. After this, the women would put them name in a big urn, and would later be matched with the city’s bachelors. They would be paired for a year, and the majority of these would end up in marriage (or so the legend goes).
So that is what the celebration of Lupercalia is, a bloody, violent and sexually-charged celebration awash with animal sacrifice, random matchmaking and coupling in the hopes of warding off evil spirits and infertility. Definitely a bit different to how we celebrate, but why if Lupercalia was celebrated on the 15th do we celebrate on the 14th?
Basically Pope Gelasius I eliminated the pagan celebration of Lupercalia and declared February 14th a day to celebrate the martyrdom of Saint Valentine instead, although it’s highly unlikely he intended the day to commemorate love and passion.
In fact, some modern biblical scholars warn Christians not to celebrate Valentine’s Day at all since it’s thought to be based on pagan rituals.
But moving on from this, during the Middle Ages, February 14th became more solidified as the day of love, because it was the beginning of birds’ mating season, which added to the idea that the middle of Valentine’s Day should be a day for romance. The English poet Geoffrey Chaucer was the first to record St. Valentine’s Day as a day of romantic celebration in his 1375 poem “Parliament of Foules,” writing, ““For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day / Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.”
When Did We Start Writing Valentines?
It wasn’t until after the 1400s that writing Valentine’s became a popular thing.
The oldest known valentine still in existence today was a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt. The greeting is now part of the manuscript collection of the British Library in London, England.
Several years later, it is believed that King Henry V hired a writer named John Lydgate to compose a valentine note to Catherine of Valois.
By the middle of the 18th, it became more common for friends and lovers of all social classes to exchange love letters, and tokens of affections. Of course handwritten notes would have been the thing back in the 18th century, and it wasn’t until the 1900s that printed cards began to replace written letters (although a hand written letter is just that extra bit special).
Interestingly, cheaper made cards obviously make things super easy for people to express their emotions in a time when direct expression of one’s feelings were discouraged. Also, cheaper postage helped increase the popularity of sending Valentine Day cards as well!
What Part Does Cupid Play on Valentine’s Day?
Obviously, it’s not all about St. Valentine, cupid plays a key role on this day as well. That winged baby boy that is often seen on Valentine’s Day casts and paraphernalia, is a symbol of this loved filled holiday and it’s easy to see why.
All you have to do is look at Roman mythology, Cupid was the son of Venus, the goddess of love and beauty.
Cupid was known for shooing arrows at both gods and humans, which would have caused them to fall in love with each other instantly. So he clearly plays a part. What is unclear though is when Cupid was brought into the Valentine’s Day story (even though it is certainly clear why).
So there you have, a history of Valentine’s Day. You can see how the name of St. Valentine’s started to be used by people to express their love to the people in their lives.
The real question is though – how will you be celebrating Valentine’s Day?