A History of Valentine’s Day

Lucile Carter, Features Editor

Image generated using OpenAI’s Dall-E

Valentine’s Day is widely celebrated across the US.  Candy hearts and paper cards are exchanged, and if you’d ask anyone they’d probably tell you Valentine’s is about romance and chocolate.  So what might be surprising is that Valentine’s Day is actually named after a Catholic priest, Saint Valentine, and the date, February 14th, marks the day of his beheading in the third century.  \

Saint Valentine lived under the reign of the Roman Emperor Claudius II.  At the time Saint Valentine was a priest, the empire was at war, and Claudius banned marriage, reasoning that marriage would get in the way of a large army.  Saint Valentine, though, continued to wed couples in secret.  This behavior against the Emperor’s wishes ended him up in jail, where he was sentenced to be executed.  From here Saint Valentine’s story is most likely a myth (it’s actually possible there were two priests named Valentine executed by Claudius II; the facts are unsure), but it’s said that before his execution, Valentine met the daughter of the jailer, named Julia, who was blind.  Valentine is said to have healed her of her blindness, and on the day of his execution, left her a note signed, “Your Valentine,” from which our modern day “Valentines” come from.  After Valentine’s death, the Catholic Church gave him the title of saint, and February 14th became a holiday in honor of the martyr in 476 A.D.  It wouldn’t be until the 14th and 15th centuries though that the day became associated with love and romance.

However, there’s another aspect of the holiday’s history.  Though the day is named after Saint Valentine, before the Catholic Church declared the holiday, a pagan festival called Lupercalia had been celebrated on the 14th of February as early as 300 B.C.  The festival was named after the Roman god Lupercus and the tale of the wolf Lupa, that raised Rome’s founders, Romulus and Remus.  The celebrations were wild, the priests of Lupercus, also known as Luperci, made sacrifices of a goat and a dog, cutting the hides into strips and running around unclothed, slapping women with the strips of hide, supposedly to aid fertility.  The holiday and its bizarre rituals were later banned by Pope Gelasius for their pagan roots, and eventually Saint Valentine’s Day took its place.  However, the history of Lupercalia still remained, parts of the celebration seeping into those of Valentine’s Day to this day.  For example, the color red, derived from the blood of the animals sacrificed on Lupercalia, is still a primary color in association with the day.

As time went on, Valentine’s day grew less bloody and more lovey-dovey as poets and playwrights, like William Shakespeare, romanticized the holiday.  Shakespeare mentions Valentine’s Day three times in his plays, referring to them in much the same way as we think of the holiday now.  Many Valentine’s Days have come and gone now, remaining romantic and sweet… despite the Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago in 1929.  In the present day, amidst the chocolate boxes and pink trimmed hearts, people often have no idea of the ancient, sometimes bloody, and often foggy history of what we see now as the Hallmark version of Valentine’s Day.