The History of Valentine’s Day

A brief look back into history at the (supposed) origins of the upcoming celebration of love.

Reader Contribution by Allan Douglas
article image
by Unsplash/Becca Tapert
Valentine’s Day approaches and many retail outlets have been decked out with candy, cards and gifts since the day after Christmas. What’s all the fuss about? This popular festival of love and romance originates in an ancient Roman festival (not created by card companies as some people believe — although they certainly capitalize on it). There are various legends associated with the festival along with the belief that birds began to mate from this day. The Valentine’s Day festival stems from the combined effects of all these legends and the wish to glorify the giddy feeling of love.

Feast of Lupercalia

Historians say that in the Rome of ancient times people observed a holiday on February 14th to honor Juno — the Queen of Roman Gods and Goddesses, and the Goddess of Women and Marriage. On February 15th began the fertility festival called ‘Feast of Lupercalia.’ The festival was celebrated to honor the Gods Lupercus and Faunus — the Roman God of Agriculture.

It was customary during the Feast of Lupercalia to bring together young boys and girls who were otherwise strictly separated. On the eve of the festival names of young Roman girls were written on a slip of paper and placed into jars. Each young man drew out a girl’s name and was paired with her for the duration of Lupercalia. Quite often, the couple would fall in love with each other and later marry. The custom lasted until a growing phenomenon called Christianity decided that mates should be chosen by sight, not luck.

Defiance by Saint Valentine

This pairing of boys and girls did set the mood of the Valentine’s Day Festival that we know today. But it was actually due to the efforts and daring of a priest: Valentinus, that the festival got its name and clearer meaning. During the reign of Emperor Claudius II Rome was involved in several bloody (and unpopular) campaigns. Claudius was having a hard time getting replacement soldiers. He felt the reason men did not join his army was they did not wish to leave their wives and sweethearts. So, Claudius cancelled all marriages and engagements in Rome. A romantic at heart, priest of Rome Valentinus defied Claudius’s unjustified order and, along with Marius, secretly married couples. When his defiance was discovered, Valentinus was brutally beaten and put to death on February 14, about 270 AD. After his death Valentinus was named Saint Valentine.

Another popular twist of the legend states that while in prison Valentinus fell in love with the jailer’s daughter who visited him during confinement. Just before his execution Valentine wrote a farewell letter to his sweetheart and signed it ‘From your Valentine.’ The expression became popular among the love-struck then and now.

By the Middle Ages, Saint Valentine assumed the image of a heroic and romantic figure among the masses in England and France. Later, when Christianity spread through Rome, the priests moved Lupercalia from February 15 to February 14. Around 498 AD, Pope Gelasius declared February 14 as St. Valentine’s Day to honor the martyr Valentinus and to put an end the pagan celebration.

Beginning of Birds Mating

During the Middle Ages, people in England and France held the belief that birds began looking for mates from February 14. This popular notion further linked Valentine’s Day: celebrated in the middle of the February, with love and romance. Over time, St. Valentine became the patron saint of lovers and they began to celebrate Valentine’s Day as a day of romance by exchanging love notes and simple gifts such as a flower.

Popularity of St. Valentine’s Day

The Valentine’s Day festival gradually grew in popularity due to the combined effect of all the above. To mark this day, lovers began to exchange love notes called ‘Valentines’ with their sweethearts. In the beginning the trend was to send handmade cards but this was changed in the beginning of 19th century when mass-produced greeting cards caught the fancy of the public. In the course of time, Valentine’s day came to be regarded as the festival that celebrates all sorts of love, not just romance. Today, Valentine’s Day cards are gifted to teachers, parents, co-workers, friends, siblings as well as sweethearts. Popularity of Valentine’s Day has spread in countries across the seven continents and is still increasing every year.

From a hand-written note and a flower to over 13 billion dollars spent annually — ain’t love grand?

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