Each year on February 14th, lovers scour shops for flowers, Hallmark cards, and boxes of chocolates while single people are forced to consider their singledom. This day is Valentine’s Day. But how did we come to celebrate this day and when did it all begin? The history behind your V-day cards is darker than you might expect, with myths, killings, sex parties, and strange rituals galore.
First of all, who was Valentine? According to the New York Times, the heart-filled holiday could be based on the deadly stories of two men. There were at least two Valentines executed on February 14th by Roman Emperor Claudius II, albeit in different years. Some historians believe that the Catholic Church established St. Valentine’s Day in their honour, to celebrate their perceived martyrdom.
A theory claims that one of these men, Saint Valentine of Terni, a Christian miracle worker, was secretly officiating weddings for Roman soldiers despite a ban by the emperor, making him, for some, a patron of love. He was executed by the Emperor for his crime, as well as his refusal to convert to paganism.
The act of writing letters to your lover is also said to have begun in Ancient Rome. Legend has it that another Valentine, executed during the Roman emperor’s reign, wrote a love letter to a young girl he tutored while in prison supposedly signing it “From your Valentine”, a phrase still used by modern lovers.
St. Valentine’s Day could have been designated by Pope Gelasius I in 496 AD to counterbalance a rowdy ancient Roman festival called Lupercalia. Lupercalia was a rather violent and hedonistic pagan party held to celebrate fertility in mid-February.
According to Classics professor Noel Lenski of the University of Colorado at Boulder, these “naked and drunk” Romans would sacrifice a goat and dog, and then gently whip young, naked maidens with the freshly slain animals to increase their fertility.
The naked Roman festival also included a “matchmaking lottery.” Ladies would put their names in a jar, and the Roman bachelors would pick out a name at random. The couples would copulate for the duration of the festival, and they would often end in marriage.
More Modern Roots
Despite these theories, the modern link between love and Valentine’s Day might not have occurred for another thousand years.
According to Jack B. Oruch, a late University of Kansas English professor, Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare also played a role in the evolution of St. Valentine’s Day as a holiday in England during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
Chaucer, in his famous work “The Parliament of Fowls,” wrote about the tradition of courtly love and the observance of St. Valentine’s Day as a time for lovers to exchange gifts and tokens of affection. Chaucer’s poem helped to popularize the holiday in England and associate it with romantic love.
Shakespeare, in his plays, also referenced the holiday and its associations with love and romance. For example, in “Hamlet,” the character Ophelia sings a song about St. Valentine’s Day, and in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the characters celebrate the holiday with festive activities and romantic pairings.
These, together with other references in Chaucer’s and Shakespeare’s works helped to cement the holiday’s link with love and romance in the English-speaking world and contributed to its continued popularity as a holiday celebrated around the world.
The English Romantic movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries also significantly catapulted St. Valentine’s Day as the holiday for lusters and lovers.
The Romantics, with their focus on emotion, individualism, and the natural world, encouraged a more personal and sentimental approach to the celebration of love, including that on St. Valentine’s Day.
During this time, St. Valentine’s Day became more widely celebrated in England, with the exchange of love letters, poems, and gifts between sweethearts becoming common fold. The Romantic poets, such as William Wordsworth and Percy Bysshe Shelley, also wrote about love and the emotion of the heart, further fueling the trend of romantic celebration on St. Valentine’s Day.
Meanwhile, the growth of the commercial printing and publishing industries made it easier for people to express their love through printed cards, letters, and gifts, further popularising the holiday. By the end of the 19th century, St. Valentine’s Day had become a firmly established holiday in England, spilling over into other Western countries before taking over the world.
Is Love Free?
Regardless of its origins, St. Valentine’s Day has been celebrated in some form for over a thousand years and has become a popular holiday in many countries. Today, the holiday is an economic powerhouse and a top shopping holiday. In the U.S alone, Americans spent $23.9 billion last year on Valentine Day paraphernalia, including gifts, flowers, cards and other romantic gestures.
The origins of St. Valentine’s Day are a surprisingly brutal melting pot of pagan and Christian traditions and beliefs. It is strange how these have evolved over the centuries to become an international, independent and popular celebration of love. Perhaps love is blind after all.
- “The history of Valentine’s Day.” Smithsonian Magazine, Smithsonian Institution, 10 Feb. 2016, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-real-history-of-valentines-day-87478206/.
- “History of Valentine’s Day.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, www.history.com/topics/valentines-day/history-of-valentines-day-2.
- “The dark origins of Valentine’s Day.” NPR, https://www.npr.org/2011/02/14/133693152/the-dark-origins-of-valentines-day
- “Valentine’s Day: Did It Start as a Roman Party or to Celebrate an Execution?”, New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/14/style/valentines-day-facts-history.html?_r=0
- “HOW MUCH MONEY IS SPENT ON VALENTINE’S DAY EVERY YEAR?”, Oberlo, https://www.oberlo.com/statistics/how-much-money-is-spent-on-valentines-day-every-year