February 14th is Valentines Day – a worldwide celebration of love and romance, marked by giving red roses and chocolate hearts or by sending valentines.
Often derided as a “Hallmark holiday,” Valentines Day – also known as Saint Valentines Day – is certainly a boom for greeting card companies, florists and candy retailers. But long before the mass marketing, Valentines Day was still a high point for courtly love.
So, how and where did the holiday get its start? And who is Saint Valentine and why has he become the symbol for love?
For starters, Saint Valentine is probably not just one man, but rather any of a number of martyred saints named Valentine or Valentinus, derived from the Latin word for valor. According to Christian tradition, all of these Saint Valentines are believed to have been martyred on February 14.
The first Valentinus, Valentine of Rome, was a priest and doctor, who treated even those patients who could not afford to pay him. The second Saint Valentine was beheaded for protecting Christians from the Romans. And the third is Valentine of Terni, a bishop believed killed during the persecution of Emperor Aurelian.
While these saints likely bestowed upon Valentines Day its name, they still do not explain the holiday’s love connection. To understand that, one has to go back even further in history – to the Romans.
Historians believe that the holiday of love derives its origins from the ancient Roman feast of Lupercalia. On February 15, the Romans celebrated the Feast of Lupercus, to honor and thank the wolf god who watched over the Roman shepherds and their flocks.
While Lupercus doesn’t seem to have much to do with romance, there was a number of fertility customs associated with his feast. In one of these rituals, women would put their names on slips of paper in a box, to be drawn out by men. The two would then be coupled up for the duration of the festival – or for the rest of the year in some cases. This fertility-friendly feast gives some clue as to the romantic – or at least procreative – nature of the holiday. But we don’t celebrate Saint Lupercus Day on February 14th. So, how did the Valentine saints become associated with the Roman god?
Legend has it that in the 3rd century, the Roman emperor Claudius II banned marriages to prevent draft dodgers. Only single men had to go into the army – and too many young men were getting married.
A Christian priest named Valentinus of Rome ignored the ban, continuing to officiate marriages in secret. Valentinus was caught and sentenced to death – an order carried out on February 14. Another story tells of a priest named Valentinus who was jailed and later executed for helping Christians. He fell for his jailer’s daughter and sent her plaintiff love notes signed “from your Valentine”.
In the late 5th century, Emperor Gelasius declared February 14th a holy day in honor of Valentinus (probably the first, but perhaps the second), allowing Christianity to adopt some of the love day customs previously associated with paganism.
The traditions were reworked, however, to honor the Christian martyrs. For example, instead of boys pulling girls’ names from boxes, both boys and girls chose names of martyred saints to emulate for the year.
It took nearly nine centuries, until the advent of the Renaissance, for Valentines Day to return to its earlier love-based roots. With Romantic art, poetry and music flourishing, the time was ripe for a celebration of love.