A Brief History of Valentines Day

Contrary to what some may believe, Valentine’s Day is not a holiday created by the greeting card or floral industry to make money. Its origins go back thousands of years to festivals celebrating love in various ancient societies. Centuries later, people in several parts of the world dedicate February 14 every year to the celebration of love.

While the focus is typically on the romantic love between two people, anyone can express friendship or appreciation on this day. It has long been a custom in American schools for children to exchange small Valentine’s Day cards with all of their classmates. Below are three legends about the origins of Valentine’s Day and how we celebrate it today.

Feast of Lupercalia

Feast of Lupercalia

In ancient Rome, people set aside February 14 as a day to honor the queen of Roman Gods and Goddesses named Juno. She also received the designation of the Goddess of Women and Marriage. Romans held a festival dedicated to fertility on February 15 each year called the Feast of Lupercalia. The purpose of the festival was to honor Faunus and Lupercus, the Gods of Agriculture and the supposed founders of Rome.

It was the custom in Roman society at the time to keep girls and boys strictly separated. However, the citizens made an exception for the Feast of Lupercalia. The day before, on February 14, a festival worker wrote the names of young Roman women on slips of paper and placed the papers in a jar. The young men then each drew a name from the jar and spent the festival with that young lady. Some couples even married after having met in this fashion. The custom eventually died out because many felt it promoted non-Christian behavior and that couples should not rely on luck to meet.

Mating Season of the Birds

A prevailing belief in England and France during the middle ages was that birds began looking for their mating partner each season starting on February 14. This idea remained popular and eventually gave way to a day set aside in the middle of February to honor love and romance. When St. Valentine officially earned the designation of the patron saint of lovers, people in England and France started to exchange simple tokens of love such as flowers and notes on a day that they called Valentine’s Day.

St. Valentine Fights Back

St. Valentine

While we associate Valentine’s Day with love and romance today, both the name and the holiday had a much different meaning back in ancient Rome. While Emperor Claudius II ruled over Rome, the country was involved in some conflicts that historians describe as unpopular and bloody.

Since most Roman men did not agree with the reasons for the fighting, Claudius II had difficulty getting them to voluntarily join the military. He felt that one of the reasons for the resistance was that men did not want to leave their wives and families behind while they went off to fight for causes they did not support in the first place. Far from being sympathetic to their plight, Claudius II decided to prohibit all engagements and ban all scheduled weddings.

St. Valentine, described as a priest who highly valued love and romance, paid no attention to the order of Claudius II. He married couples secretly with the assistance of St. Marius. Claudius II eventually discovered the defiance of St. Valentine and ordered him beaten and put to death. He died on February 14 in the year 270. Roman citizens pushed to have him declared a saint after his death.

There is also another version of the story of St. Valentine that states Claudius II had him killed because he helped Christians escape from prison. They were only in prison because they claimed Christianity as their religious faith. St. Valentine felt a moral obligation to protect them from the torture and beatings guards subjected them to on a regular basis. A slightly different twist on the prison story has St. Valentine falling in love with the daughter of the jailer who came to visit him often. He wrote a letter to her signed “from your Valentine” and the expression stuck through the centuries.

Regardless of which of these stories is true or even if they happened at all, St. Valentine became a romantic hero to the people of England and Frances. By the time Christianity became the prevailing religion of Rome a few centuries later, Pope Gelasius declared February 14 as St. Valentine’s Day in 498 AD.

Valentine’s Day in Modern America

Valentine’s Day in Modern America

The legends that surrounded St. Valentine made their way to America and February 14 soon became a beloved holiday here as well. Couples in love in the 19th century exchanged handmade cards that mostly gave way to mass-produced greeting cards in the 20th century. It’s also common for women to receive gifts such as a bouquet of flowers, chocolate, or jewelry while it can be a little trickier to buy a romantic gift for men. Part of the excitement leading up to the day is spending time observing what the other might like and presenting it as a gift on Valentine’s Day.

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