It occurs every February 14th, and whether you love it or hate it, you cannot avoid it: Valentine’s Day. Shop displays fill with heart decorations, chocolate, flowers and cheesy cards, whilst nowadays streaming platforms promote their soppiest movies. But where does the tradition come from? What was the meaning behind this day before consumerism overtook it?
1. Saint Valentine
The namesake and patron saint of Valentine’s Day is of course Saint Valentine, however there are varying ideas on who this figure was, as well as how he became associated with the February celebration, which was already long considered a month of romance.
Within the Catholic Church, there are at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom were martyred. One legend tells the story of Valentine, a priest in Rome during the third century, when Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers and so outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine apparently saw the injustice of this and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret, however when his actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be killed. There are also suggestions that he secretly married couples who were not allowed to get married due to religious beliefs. Others believe it was Saint Valentine of Terni, a bishop, also beheaded by Claudius II outside Rome, who was the true namesake of the day.
Some sources suggest that Saint Valentine was actually two distinct historical characters, who were said to have healed a child while imprisoned, before being executed. Whilst there are also tales that suggest that Saint Valentine may have been killed for attempting to help Christians escape harsh Roman prisons, where they were often beaten and tortured. One legend tells of an imprisoned Valentine who sent the first ‘valentine’ greeting after he fell in love with a young girl, possibly his jailor’s daughter, who visited him during his confinement. It is said that before his death he wrote her a letter signed ‘From your Valentine’, an expression still used today.
The truth seems unclear, but although the many tales are distinct, all paint Saint Valentine as a sympathetic, heroic and romantic figure. Perhaps this is why, by the Middle Ages, Saint Valentine had become one of the most popular saints in England and France. Today, the Roman Catholic Church still recognises Saint Valentine as a saint of the church, however he was removed from the General Roman Calendar in 1969 because of the lack of reliable information there is about about him. He is the patron saint of lovers, epileptics and beekeepers, but the specifics of his story remain shrouded in mystery.
2. Valentine’s Day
There are also varying ideas as to why we celebrate Valentine’s Day on February 14th. Some claim that the date commemorates the anniversary of Saint Valentine’s death or burial, said to have occurred around A.D. 270. However others believe the Christian church may have decided to place Saint Valentine’s feast day on this date in an effort to ‘Christianise’ the pagan celebration of Lupercalia.
Lupercalia was pagan fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, and to the Roman founders Romulus and Remus. The festival began with members of the Luperci, an order of Roman priests, gathering at a sacred cave where the infants Romulus and Remus were believed to have been cared for by a she-wolf, or lupa. The priests would sacrifice a goat, for fertility, and a dog, for purification, before stripping the goat’s hide into strips and dipping them into the sacrificial blood. They would then take to the streets, gently slapping both women and crop fields with the goat hide, which was believed to make both more fertile in the coming year. According to legend, later on in the day the young women in the city would place their names in a big urn and the city’s bachelors would each choose a name and become paired for the year with his chosen woman, matches which often ended in marriage. After surviving the initial rise of Christianity, Lupercalia was later deemed ‘un-Christian’ and outlawed at the end of the 5th century, when Pope Gelasius declared February 14th Saint Valentine’s Day.
It was still not until much later on that Valentine’s day became definitively associated with love and the romantic day as we know it. During the Middle Ages, it was commonly believed in France and England that February 14th was the beginning of birds’ mating season, and this added to the idea that it should be a day for romance. English poet Geoffrey Chaucer was the first to record Saint Valentine’s Day as a day of romantic celebration, in his 1375 poem ‘Parliament of Foules’. He wrote ‘For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day / Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.’
In the Middle Ages Valentine greetings were already popular, although written Valentine’s didn’t begin to appear until after 1400. The oldest known valentine still in existence today was a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife, while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London, a greeting which is now in the British Library. Several years later, it is believed that King Henry V hired a writer named John Lydgate to compose a valentine note to Catherine of Valois.
Another key character on Valentine’s Day is Cupid, that familiar and loveable naked cherub who spends the day launching arrows of love at unsuspecting lovers. In fact, the Roman God Cupid actually has his roots in Greek mythology as the Greek God of love, Eros. According to the Greek Archaic poets, Eros was a handsome immortal who played with the emotions of Gods and men, using golden arrows to incite love, and leaden ones to sow aversion. However, it wasn’t until the Hellenistic period that he began to be portrayed as the mischievous, chubby child we recognise today.