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 Remus.

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 game.

St. Valentine

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. Valentine's Day.

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 successful.

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.