HISTORY OF ST. VALENTINE’S DAY
The day we associate with love and romance has a history that traces back almost three millennia to ancient Rome but winds through Roman North Africa, England, and the United States.
St. Valentine was martyred on February 14. However, Valentine or Valentinus is the name of at least three martyred saints. The most celebrated are the two martyrs whose festival days fall on February 14. One was a Roman priest; the other was the bishop of Terni.
It would appear from legend that both lived during the reign of Emperor Claudius II (Gothicus) around 270; both died on the same day. Both were buried on the Via Flaminia but at different distances from the city of Rome. A third Valentine was a martyr in the Roman province of North Africa, about whom little is known.
One story relates how Valentine, while imprisoned before his execution, restored the sight of his jailer’s blind daughter. He wrote a farewell note to her the night before his execution on February 14, signed,
“From your Valentine.”
This Claudius the Cruel had banned his soldiers from marrying, believing that unmarried members were more reliable on foreign military campaigns. Valentine was beaten and beheaded because he had secretly married soldiers to their wives, contrary to the ban.
The first celebration of the Feast of St. Valentine was declared to be on February 14 by Pope Gelasius I in 496. At the same time, he outlawed the pagan Roman practice of Lupercalia.
St. Valentine is the patron saint of beekeeping, epilepsy, the plague, fainting, and traveling. And, of course, he’s also the patron saint of engaged couples and happy marriages. Many authorities believe that the lovers’ festival associated with St. Valentine’s Day comes from the belief that this is the day in Spring when birds begin their mating. But there is another view.
Roman Lupercalia Background to St Valentine’s Day
In the days of early Rome, a great festival was held every February called Lupercalia, held in honor of a god named Lupercus. During Rome’s founding days, the city was surrounded by an immense wilderness with great hordes of wolves. The Romans thought they must have a god to watch over and protect the shepherds with their flocks, and promote fertility in sheep, so they called this god Lupercus, from the Latin word lupus, a wolf. The celebration was held between February 13 and 15.
Lupercus is the name of the cave at the base of the Palatine Hill in Rome, where the she-wolf nurtured Romulus and Remus, founders of ancient Rome, on April 21, 753 B.C.
One of the amusements on this festival day was placing young women’s names in a box to be drawn out by the young men. Each young man accepted the girl whose name he drew as his lady love. It remains unknown whether the customs of Lupercalia are perpetuated on Valentine’s Day.
Romance and St Valentine’s Day
But whence came the romantic aspect of Valentine’s Day? The medieval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer wrote in the late 1370s 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. However, this association didn’t exist until after his poem received widespread attention. The verse 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 the published literature of the holiday as we know it today.
Customs of St Valentine’s Day
Practices and customs have changed throughout the years; during Christian times, the priests put saints’ and martyrs’ names into boxes to be drawn out. The name 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!”
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.
Shakespeare featured the idea of a romantic Valentine in his play Hamlet when Ophelia refers to herself as Hamlet’s Valentine:
“Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s day.
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.”
This follows the tradition that the first woman seen by a man on the morning of Valentine’s Day would be his true love. Ophelia gets up early in the morning to be the first girl Hamlet sees.
St. Valentine’s Day Cards
Paper valentines date back to the 15th century and cards to the 18th, but it took American enterprise to make a buck at it. Esther A. Howland of Worcester, MA, produced one of the first American commercial Valentines in 1848 and sold in the first year of sales $5,000 worth — when $5,000 was a LOT of money. Today, $1.3B is spent on Valentine’s Day greeting cards.
Hallmark Cards of Kansas City, MO, introduced them in 1913 and began mass-producing “valentines” in 1916. Hallmark is not just about Christmas romance movies. Today we exchange about 145 million cards, not counting the ones exchanged in school classrooms.
Valentine’s Day Candy
Valentine’s Day is the second-priciest holiday on the U.S. calendar: Americans spend $27.4 billion each year, $2.4 billion just on candy. On average, celebrants spend almost $200 on the day, $100 for a couple’s dinner out. Men spend three times as much as women. We spend money on flowers, jewelry, candy… but especially chocolate. We purchase fifty-eight million pounds of chocolate in the seven days leading up to February 14.
If you’re asked if you have a date for St. Valentine’s Day, you can say
Yes… my date is February 14.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian