Valentine’s Day’s origin is a mystery and cannot be pinpointed to an exact date. However, a few factors explain how it came to be celebrated as a holiday, beginning with ancient Rome’s Lupercalia festival.
The Romans were known for their rituals and one tradition held annually on Feb. 15 was the festival of Lupercalia. This fertility festival paid homage to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, and to Romulus and Remus, who were the founders of Rome.
In infancy, Romulus and Remus had been looked after by a she-wolf, also known as Lupa. Roman priests belonging to the Luperci order began the festival by sacrificing a goat and a dog. Sacrificing a goat symbolized fertility while the dog was for purification. The goat’s hide was torn into strips and covered in the blood before being used to gently hit crop fields and women. Women queued up for this ritual as it was thought the practice would help them become fertile.
Another part of this festival included a matchmaking ritual. Young women placed their names in an urn and then young men would each draw a name from it. The couple remained together for a year, often getting married afterward.
The Date Is Set
Pope Gelasius I deemed the pagan festival of Lupercalia to be un-Christian. Circa 496, he changed the festival to a Christian feast, which was held on Feb. 14. The feast was in honor of St. Valentine.
However, it’s not entirely clear which saint the celebration was originally intended to honor.
The Catholic Church recognized three Christian saints named Valentine, who were all martyred on the same date, Feb. 14. One of them was a priest serving in Rome, one was a bishop serving in Terni and one died in Africa, although not much is known about him.
One legend holds that it was the priest who was honored in this celebration. Emperor Claudius II prohibited young men from getting married, believing they would be better soldiers without having families. The priest disagreed with this injustice and performed secret marriage ceremonies. He was caught by the Romans and sentenced to death by Claudius.
Another legend states that Valentine was imprisoned. His jailer had a daughter who visited Valentine and he fell in love with her. He wrote her a letter before his execution that ended with "From your Valentine."
Another legend portrays Valentine as helping Christian prisoners to escape from Roman prisons. Conditions in these prisons were harsh and Christians were undoubtedly tortured.
Whichever legend is nearest the truth, all portray Valentine in a romantic light, either literally or heroically.
In England and France during the Middle Ages, St. Valentine became incredibly popular. The mating season for birds was said to start on Feb. 14 and so Valentine’s Day became associated with romance and love. This idea was formalized in 1381 when Chaucer wrote a poem and associated it with the feast day of St. Valentine to honor Richard II’s and Anne of Bohemia’s engagement.
Valentine’s Day Cards
The tradition of sending Valentine cards began in England and was quite common by the 18th century. The sentiment spread to the colonies in America but took some time to become as popular. In the 1840s Esther A. Howland started to mass-produce Valentine cards in America. Today, the business of Valentine cards is huge and the romantic notions behind them and the holiday are stronger than ever.