What's the story with Valentine's Day

images of young lovers holding hands, a cupid holding a heart and an illustration of St. Valentine

Valentine’s Day is a favorite holiday for young lovers and passionate couples around the world. But what is the history of Valentine’s Day? 

We all have our own reasons why we celebrate this day of love. Giving and receiving gifts with our significant others, or maybe hoping to woo a new lover. But how did this holiday begin?

Historians think that the customs associated with today’s Valentine’s Day are based on traditions of both Christians and the ancient Romans.

In ancient Rome there was a festival celebrated on Feb. 15 called Lupercalia. The ritual celebration was held to cleanse the city while promoting health and fertility. This festival was not based around love and giving, but rather sacrifice and sex. According to some historians, the themes of sex and passion associated with Lupercalia, and the fact that this festival was celebrated on Feb. 15, are why people associate Lupercalia with Valentine’s Day. No clear connection between this ancient celebration and the modern holiday has ever been documented, only the fact that we now celebrate Valentine’s Day on Feb. 14, which is the eve of Lupercalia.

The history of Valentine’s Day is murky at best. There is record of at least three different Christian saints whose names have some slight variation of Valentine. One was a Roman priest in the third century. He was performing marriage ceremonies against the will of Emperor Claudius II. The emperor ordered him put to death. He was a martyr for love.

Another Valentine was a bishop who was beheaded by Emperor Claudius II near Rome.

Still another legend talks about a priest named Valentine being jailed by the Romans for his role in helping Christians escape from prison. This legend seems to be where we get the root of Valentine’s Day.

The lore says that while in jail Valentine fell in love with a woman who was likely his jailer’s daughter. She would visit him during his incarceration. It’s alleged that before he was killed, he wrote a letter to his love and signed it with the message, “From your Valentine.” According to the folklore, this is where the action of giving your Valentine a sweet message came from. This phrase is still used today on almost every Valentine’s Day note.

No matter if Saint Valentine was one man or three, the stories all say his appeal as a heroic and caring person is why he has been immortalized as a romantic figure from history. 

By the Middle Ages, Valentine had become one of the most popular saints in England and France. According to historians, to try and capitalize on his popularity it’s likely that Christian churches decided to have a St. Valentines feast in the middle of February to try and counter the pagan holiday of Lupercalia. 

The custom of giving gifts to a loved one or to someone you hoped would be your lover is said to have come about in the 18th century. Friends and lovers started by exchanging small gifts or notes and then in the 1840s, Esther Howland an American, began selling printed Valentine’s Day cards on a commercial scale. She is know as the “Mother of the Valentine.” 

Today millions of Valentine’s Day cards are purchased and exchanged making it the second largest card-selling holiday in the world.

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By Brad on February 9, 2023