Valentine or Valentinus, is the name of at least three martyred saints. The most celebrated are the two martyrs whose festivals fall on February 14, the one, a Roman priest, the other, bishop of Terni. It would appear from legend that both lived during the reign of the Emperor Claudius II (Gothicus); that both were martyred on the same day; and that both were buried on the Via Flaminia, but at different distances from the city of Rome. A third was a martyr in the Roman province of North Africa about whom little is known.
It seems that the first celebration of the Feast of St. Valentine was declared to be on February 14 by Pope Gelasius I in 496. He is the patron saint of beekeeping, epilepsy, as well as the plague, fainting and traveling. And of course he’s also the patron saint of engaged couples and happy marriages.
But where did the romantic aspect of Valentines Day come from? The medieval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer wrote in the late 1370’s about the Saint in his poem called “Parliament of Foules.” He links a tradition of courtly love with the celebration of St. Valentine’s feast day. This was an association that didn’t exist until after his poem received widespread attention. The poem refers to February 14 as the day birds (and humans) come together to find a mate. When Chaucer wrote the following,
“For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day
Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate”
…his was the first mention in published literature of the holiday as we know it today!
Customs have changed throughout the years, during Christian times the priests put the names of saints and martyrs into the boxes to be drawn out. The name that was drawn out was called one’s “valentine” and the holy life of that person was to be imitated throughout the year. It was at one time the custom in England for people to call out:
“Good morning, ’tis St. Valentine’s Day”
and the one who succeeded in saying this first expected a present from the one to whom it was said, making things pretty lively on St. Valentine’s Day.
Paper valentines date back to the 1500’s but it took the enterprise of America to make a buck at it. Esther A. Howland, who produced one of the first American commercial Valentines in 1848 sold $5,000 worth – when $5,000 was a LOT of money – in the first year of sales.
If you’re asked if you have a date for St. Valentine’s day, you can say Yes… February 14.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian