It’s Valentine’s Day today and we celebrate love. But why, exactly, do we do that? What are the origins of Valentine’s Day? History.com has some interesting theories to offer.
One theory is that Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome. When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death.
Why February 14th?
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 probably occurred around A.D. 270—others claim that the Christian church may have decided to place St. Valentine’s feast day in the middle of February in an effort to “Christianize” the pagan celebration of Lupercalia.
Celebrated at the ides of February, or February 15, Lupercalia was a fertility festival. To begin the festival, members of the Luperci, an order of Roman priests, would gather at a sacred cave where they would sacrifice a goat. They would then strip the goat’s hide into strips, dip them into the sacrificial blood and take to the streets, gently slapping both women and crop fields with the goat hide.
Perhaps surprisingly, Roman women welcomed the touch of the hides because it was believed to make them more fertile in the coming year. Later in the day, the young women in the city would place their names in a big urn. The city’s bachelors would each choose a name and become paired for the year with his chosen woman. These matches often ended in marriage.
Unsurprisingly, Lupercalia was deemed “un-Christian” and was effectively banned at the end of the 5th century, when Pope Gelasius declared February 14 St. Valentine’s Day.
The Middle Ages
During the Middle Ages, it was commonly believed in France and England that February 14 was the beginning of birds’ mating season, which added to the idea that the middle of Valentine’s Day should be a day for romance. The English poet Geoffrey Chaucer was the first to record St. Valentine’s Day as a day of romantic celebration in his 1375 poem “Parliament of Foules,” writing:
For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day
Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.
Valentine’s greetings were already popular by then, though written Valentine’s didn’t begin to appear until after 1400. The oldest known valentine still in existence today was a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt.
Whatever the truth behind the celebration, I wish you all a Happy Valentine’s Day. And may you never receive a vinegar Valentine’s card!