The History of Valentine’s Day

The day of heart-shaped chocolates and red roses is near. But how did it all begin? The true history behind Valentine’s Day is murky. Many legends tell different stories of Saint Valentine, but they all have something in common: Each story emphasizes the sympathetic, heroic and romantic appeal of Valentine. 

The legends of Saint Valentine contain fragments of both Christian and ancient Roman traditions. The first tale states that Valentine was a priest who served in third-century Rome. Emperor Claudius II was the ruler of Rome during this period and decided single men were better as soldiers than those with wives and families. As a result of this decision, Claudius outlawed marriage for young men. Saint Valentine recognized the injustice that Claudius had put into place, so Valentine continued to marry young lovers in secret. Valentine was soon discovered and Claudius ordered him to be killed. Another legend believes that Saint Valentine was killed for helping Christians escape from harsh Roman prisons where they were being violently abused. 

There is also a story that states that Saint Valentine was Valentine of Terni, a bishop, who was born in the late second century and martyred in third-century Rome. Valentine was the first bishop of Terni and followed Christianity when it was still a cult in the ancient Roman Empire. Valentine of Terni was arrested for his continued efforts to evangelize. He was sent to Emperor Claudius II, where Claudius actually took a liking to Valentine. It wasn’t until Valentine attempted to evangelize Claudius that he condemned Valentine to death. Claudius gave Valentine the choice to either renounce his faith or die a martyr. Valentine refused to abandon his Christianity and is believed to have been executed on February 14 in AD 269. 

Saint Valentine is also believed to have been imprisoned where he fell in love with his jailor’s daughter who frequently visited him during his confinement. This is said to possibly be the first exchange of “Valentine’s.” Before Saint Valentine died, historians alleged that he wrote the girl a letter signed, “From your Valentine.” 

Valentine’s Day is believed to be celebrated in the middle of February because of two different speculations. The first is that it is to commemorate the anniversary of Saint Valentine’s death or burial, and the second is because the Christian church wanted to “Christianize” the pagan holiday of Lupercalia, which was held on the same days as Valentine’s Day and feast. 

Lupercalia was a fertility festival dedicated to the Roman god of agriculture, Faunus, and to Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome. The festival began with the gathering at the cave where Romulus and Remus are believed to have been cared for as infants. Here, priests would perform animal sacrifices in hopes of helping the fertility of Roman women in the coming year. Young women would then place their names in a giant urn, and the city’s bachelors would choose a name from the urn and be paired together for the year. Tying into the Valentine’s traditions that we know today, many of these pairs ended in marriage. The festival of Lupercalia was outlawed at the end of the fifth century when Pope Gelasius deemed it “un-Christian.” The Pope declared February 14 to be St. Valentine’s Day from then on. 

Valentine’s Day began to be associated with love during the Middle Ages due to the common French and English belief that February 14 was the beginning of the bird’s mating season. This created the idea that Valentine’s Day should be a day for romance. By the middle of the 18th century, it was common for Valentine’s to be exchanged between lovers, friends and family, in all social classes. Technological improvements in the 20th century allowed for printed cards to replace written letters. Esther A. Howland is known as the “Mother of the American Valentine” for being the first person to mass-produce Valentines in the 1840s. Her creations with lace, ribbons and colorful pictures sparked the “Hallmark” Valentine’s that we know today.

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