Valentine’s Day occurs every February 14. Candy, flowers, and gifts are exchanged between loved ones all over the world on Valentine’s Day, all in the name of St. Valentine. But who is this enigmatic saint, and where did these traditions originate?
The holiday’s history, as well as the story of its patron saint, are shrouded in mystery. We do know that February has long been associated with romance, and that St. Valentine’s Day, as we know it today, incorporates elements of both Christian and ancient Roman tradition.
But who was Saint Valentine, and how did he come to be associated with this age-old tradition?
The Catholic Church recognizes at least three different martyred saints named Valentine or Valentinus. According to one legend, Valentine was a priest who served in Rome during the third century. When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men were better soldiers than those with wives and families, he prohibited young men from marrying. Valentine, realizing the decree’s injustice, deified Claudius and continued to perform secret marriages for young lovers.
When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius had him executed. Others argue that the true namesake of the holiday was Saint Valentine of Terni, a bishop. Claudius II also beheaded him outside of Rome.
While some believe that Valentine’s Day is celebrated in the middle of February to commemorate the anniversary of Valentine’s death or burial, which occurred around A.D. 270, others believe that the Christian church decided to place St. Valentine’s feast day in the middle of February to “Christianize” the pagan celebration of Lupercalia. Lupercalia, celebrated on the 15th of February, was a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, as well as the Roman founders Romulus and Remus.
Lupercalia survived the early Christian era but was outlawed (as “un-Christian”) at the end of the fifth century, when Pope Gelasius declared February 14 St. Valentine’s Day. However, it was not until much later that the day became inextricably linked with love. During the Middle Ages, it was widely held in France and England that February 14 marked the start of bird mating season, lending credence to the notion that the middle of Valentine’s Day should be a day for romance. In his 1375 poem “Parliament of Foules,” the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer was the first to record St. Valentine’s Day as a day of romantic celebration.
By the middle of the 18th century, friends and lovers of all social classes were exchanging small tokens of affection or handwritten notes, and by 1900, printed cards had begun to replace written letters due to advances in printing technology. In an era when direct expression of one’s feelings was discouraged, ready-made cards provided an easy way for people to express their emotions.
Cheaper postage rates also helped to boost the popularity of sending Valentine’s Day greetings. The Greeting Card Association estimates that an estimated 145 million Valentine’s Day cards are sent each year, making Valentine’s Day the second largest card-sending holiday of the year (more cards are sent at Christmas).