A Short History of Valentine’s Day

Every year on February 14th, people all over the western world celebrate the day of St. Valentine. Generally, Valentine’s Day is know as a day to celebrate love and romance, where lovers give gifts and cards to each other. However the origins of this holiday are quite murky. 

Which Valentine?

In 496 AD, Pope Gelasius declared that the previous pagan holiday of Lupercalia (a celebration of fertility) be henceforth known as the day of St. Valentine. However, up to this point, there had been three St. Valentines in the history of the church. Today, there is almost nothing historically verifiable about any of the three Valentines except that one was a Bishop in Rome and one was killed in Africa at some point, and all of them are said to have been martyred on February 14th

The Myth

Although almost nothing is known about these three saints, most scholars believe that St. Valentine, the bishop of Rome sometime around 270 AD, is probably the one referred to by Pope Gelasius. Perhaps it was because Gelasius named a holiday for him that a myth was created for St. Valentine, whose origins are untraceable and are most likely apocryphal. 

According to the legend, Roman Emperor Claudius II placed a ban on marriage because he needed more soldiers for his army and he thought single men made better soldiers. Valentine disagreed with the Emperor and decided to perform marriages in secret. Of course, the Emperor found out and put Valentine in jail. According to legend, while in prison, Valentine befriended the jailer’s blind daughter and healed her blindness. When Valentine refused to worship the roman Gods, and tried to convert Claudius to Christianity, he was put to death.

In some versions of the story, Valentine was said to have fallen in love with the jailer’s daughter, whom he had healed, and just before his execution sent her a love letter, signed “From your Valentine.”

The Holiday

Although the Catholic Church tried for centuries to quash the romantic tones of the holiday, they did not succeed, and the tradition grew stronger through the middle ages. But I guess that’s what you get when you try and change a fertility celebration into a solemn day of remembrance.

By the 1700s, Valentine’s Day was a generally accepted holiday when young lovers would give cards to each other, illustrated with hearts and cupids, and decorated with lace. But it was not until the 1840s, when Valentine’s Day card manufacturing became successful, that the holiday really took off and became the holiday we know it as today.

Diane Johnson writes about a number of her interests including four wheeling, online courses, shopping, and celebrating holidays.

Image: Simon Howden / FreeDigitalPhotos.net


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