How Did it All Start? The unromantic roots of Valentine’s Day

On February 14, couples of all ages and backgrounds will participate in the commonly celebrated traditions of Valentine’s Day. Originally a liturgical feast day to celebrate a Christian martyr, the exchange of cards, flowers, sweets and other various tokens of affection will abound. Pledges of love and fealty will be made and in some cases, proposals — proposing is a wildly popular thing to do in the Philippines. Primarily recognized in the West (many countries oppose the day for political and religious reasons), sales in the United States alone are expected to reach more than $20 billion this year.  

But the origins of this day are a bit more unromantic than modern couples would have us believe.

There are more than 30 saints who go by Valentine or Valentinus, and only three make the list of candidates likely to claim Valentine’s Day as their namesake. Of those three, two were executed on February 14 in different years by Emperor Claudius II Gothicus in the third century AD. The other likely candidate died in Africa, alongside 24 soldiers. Very little information is known about him.  

The second Valentinus, a Roman priest, was arrested and taken into custody by an aristocrat named Asterius. A non-believer, Asterius made Valentinus an offer: If he could cure his daughter’s blindness through the power of God, he and his family would convert. Sure enough, Valentinus restored the young girl’s vision and Asterius and his family were later baptized. When news of this reached Emperor Gothicus, he ordered Valentinus and the recently converted family executed (Valentinus was beheaded).

Another part of legend says that while imprisoned, Valentinus had befriended Asterius’ daughter and signed a letter “from your Valentine.”  However, no proof of this exists.

The third Valentinus was a bishop of Terni in the district of Umbria, Italy. His story, according to medieval legend, is remarkably similar to the second. A man sought help from the good bishop to heal his son’s physical disability. After miraculously curing the son, the family converted to Christianity. Emperor Claudius II discovered this and had him arrested and later beheaded. It is very likely, considering the remarkable resemblance of both stories, that these two people are one and the same.

There is an unsubstantiated “love letters” legend along with another legend that one of these saints secretly married young couples (marriage was outlawed under Claudius II since he believed married men were less likely to fight in his wars). A final claim made is that Valentinus aided mistreated Christians in escaping Roman prisons.

Is it not peculiar that the least likely stories of Valentinus are far more romantic than the more likely ones? There seems to be just as many legends surrounding this venerated figure as there are churches and monasteries in Europe claiming to have bits of bone belonging to a St. Valentinus.  

Some speculate the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia, celebrated in mid-February, may have been a precursor to the Christian holiday and purposely replaced by Pope Gelasius I in the fifth century. During this pagan fertility festival, men would strip naked and goats and dogs would be sacrificed. Later, women would line up to be whipped by the men with the hides of the sacrificed animals, believing that this would make them more fertile. A matchmaking lottery was included in the festivities, pairing young men and women up for the duration of the festival, or, if the match was right, indefinitely. 

Geoffrey Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales, was the first to romanticize the holiday in his poem “Parliament of Foules” in 1375. He writes, For this was on seynt Volantynys day/ Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.” The poem is one of the first references to connect the celebration of Valentine’s Day to love and romance. Europeans commonly thought of mid-February as the beginning of the avian mating season, when birds came together to produce eggs and prepare for the arrival of spring. Birds continue to be a symbol of love to this day. 

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the doomed Ophelia sings, “To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day/All in the morning betime/And I a maid at your window/To be your Valentine.” 

The earliest known Valentine sent to a loved one is a poem written by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London in the 15th century.

In the mid-19th century, the industrial revolution made it easier for people to participate in the holiday with mass-produced greeting cards. The first Hershey Kiss was produced in 1907, followed by Hallmark Valentine’s Day cards in 1913.