Valentine’s Day is the one day of the year when we celebrate romantic love with cards, flowers and heart shaped boxes of chocolate. Is that all there is to it? Like so many of our major holidays, Valentine’s Day has a long and fascinating history.
Most of us are aware that Valentine’s Day is associated with St. Valentine, but even many Catholics don’t know that there are actually three saints with the name Valentine (Valentinus). Which one is the patron saint of Valentine’s Day? Even scholars disagree, but one of the top contenders is a 3rd century priest who was martyred because he opposed Emperor Claudius II, who made it a crime for young men to marry. The emperor was against marriage because he didn’t want his soldiers to be worrying about their wives and children on the battlefield. Valentine, who believed in the sanctity of marriage, ignored the law and was put to death.
Another version of the story says Valentine was executed for attempting to help Christians escape from the harsh conditions in Roman prisons and was the author of the first “Valentine’s card.” Legend has it that while imprisoned, Valentine fell in love with a young woman, possibly a jailor’s daughter, who visited him in his cell. One day he wrote her a short letter and signed it, “From your Valentine.” To this day, Valentine’s Day cards continue to be signed in his name.
By the Middle Ages, St. Valentine became the most popular saint in Catholicism because he represented all the virtues of a saint plus one more that endeared him to the people: he was a romantic.
Why is Valentine’s Day Celebrated in February?
Most of us don’t think too much about why February 14 was chosen as the day to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Those of us who do assume it is to honour the day St. Valentine was martyred, but scholars say that day is unknown and the roots of the holiday go back to pre-Christian times.
Before the Christian era, Romans celebrated Lupercalia on the Ides of February — 15 February.
Lupercalia was a fertility festival honouring Faunus, the god of agriculture, and Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, who were said to have been raised by a she-wolf (lupa). On that day, young women put their names in an urn and bachelors would choose a name from the urn. The couples were paired for a year and often would go on to marry.
early Valentine’s Day cardLupercalia was such a popular holiday, it persisted until the 15th century, when it was finally outlawed and replaced with St. Valentine’s Day. February 14th became the official day because in England and France, it was commonly believed that the 14th was the first day of birds’ mating season.
In 1415, Charles, Duke of Orleans, was imprisoned in the Tower of London after being captured during the Battle of Algincourt. While pining away for his beloved wife, Charles wrote a poem for her. Although others probably wrote Valentine greetings to their loved ones before him, Charles’ poem is the oldest surviving Valentine greeting.
Whatever its origins and true history may be, Valentine’s Day has always been a celebration of romantic love. Some argue that it has been too commercialised today, but that doesn’t stop us from buying flowers on Valentine’s Day or going out for a romantic dinner. And why not? As the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy wrote:
“Love is life. All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love. Everything is, everything exists, only because I love.”