The History of Valentine's Day
Valentine's Day as we know it today, a sweet
celebration of love, has had many influences, some
pagan, some Christian, and some overwhelmingly cultural.
The celebration of love for the sake of love, with its
symbols of Cupid's arrows, red roses and Valentine's Day
cards, evolved slowly over the last 2,500 years.
The pagan origins of Valentine's Day begin with the
Roman feast of Lupercalia. On February 14, Romans
honoured Juno, the goddess of fertility. The feast of
Lupercalia began the next day. Lupercalia was festival
to celebrate spring, or more specifically to celebrate
the Faunus, the god of wild nature and/or agriculture.
It was a time for purification and renewal, as well as a
time to reflect on the founders of Rome, Romulus and
Fertility rituals, including taking the hides of a
sacrificial goat and hitting crops, and even women with
them, abounded. At the festival, it was customary for
boys to draw the name of a prospective lover from an
urn. These matches would last a year, until the next
Lupercalia feast, with many marriages resulting from the
In 496 AD, Pope Gelasius abolished the Lupercalia
festival. Instead, he initiated a day of celebration for
St. Valentine on February 14. Like
Halloween, Valentine's Day traditions grew from the
Christian influence overtaking the established pagan
festivals. Now, instead of Roman boys and girls taking
names of lovers in the annual draw, they drew names of
saints. These "lovers" saints were to be the children's
moral and spiritual guides for the year.
Why did Gelasius choose Valentine as the patron saint
for the day? Records indicate that there were three
martyred men by the name of Valentine. The most famous
Valentine was a Roman priest during the reign of
Claudius II, or Claudius the Goth. The reign of Claudius
was particularly bloody, and many Roman men refused to
join the military. Claudius believed the men did not
want to leave their families behind, so he banned all
marriages and engagements. Valentine refused to respect
the Emperor's edict, and started marrying couples in
secret, risking his life for love - literally. He was
imprisoned, stoned, beaten and then beheaded on February
14, 270 AD.
While the Roman priest was in jail, or so the story
goes, he fell in love with the daughter of the jailer,
sending letters to her signed, "From your Valentine."
The association of lovers with the martyred saint became
the main reason why Gelasius chose to celebrate St.
Valentine during the feast of Lupercalia, maintaining
the festival's origins in terms of its celebration of
fertility and marriage. The more accepted version of
Valentine's life states he was apprehended to the
prefect of Rome, asked to give up his faith, and when he
refused, was executed. Somehow, the romantic story of
secret marriages and dying for love seems more fitting
for Valentine's Day!
The second St. Valentine was a Bishop from Terni, who
was martyred a few years later. Rumour states both
saints were buried close to each other on the ancient
Via Flamina, now the Porta del Popolo, which was then
named the "Gate of St. Valentine." The third known St.
Valentine was a priest from Africa, and nothing more is
known of him.
Medieval folklore tells a different story of the
origins of Valentine's Day. Birds were said to have
chosen their mates on February 14, thus the mating
season initiated the custom of celebrating love on that
very date. Geoffrey Chaucer commented on the folklore,
for the first time in print, in his poem, The
Parliament of Fowls, written sometime in the late
14th century: "For this was on St. Valentine's Day, when
every fowl cometh their to choose his mate."
Chaucer's poem explores the themes of love in terms
of many of the myths of his day, with the relationships
between the birds standing in for customs of courtly
love. The Parliament of Fowls firmly established
St. Valentine as the patron saint of lovers, a mythology
that still exists today.
The Duke of Orleans, captured during the Battle of
Agincourt, sent a love letter to his wife while
imprisoned in the Tower of London, this letter, on
display at the British Museum in London, became the
world's first 'valentine.' In 1537, a Royal Charter by
Henry VIII, himself a man obviously devoted to the
pleasures of love (if having six wives is any
indication), officially declared February 14 as St.
By the next century, Valentine's Day was widely
celebrated in Britain and, by the 1700s cards were
exchanged on a regular basis, which became one of the
precursors to how the holiday is celebrated today. The
first commercial Valentine appeared in the 1840s when an
American woman named Esther Howland started a business
making mass-produced Valentines that was incredibly
Many of our modern Valentine's Day symbols have roots
in these very traditions, from Cupid's arrows and
red roses, to cards professing undying love. For
centuries now couples have set aside time on February 14
to celebrate their feelings.