Valentine’s Day is the day we celebrate love around the world. The holiday has become derided over the years as a day of overpriced dinners, flowers, and chocolates — essentially a day that puts a price tag on love. But it wasn’t always this way. St. Valentine’s Day has a much older history than many give it credit for, so in the name of love, we’re going to defend this day from claims it was invented just to sell cards. The cards came later.
In reality, Valentine’s Day is much like Halloween or Christmas, as it mirrors the history of Europe and combines ancient pagan festivals of the local population with the rising Christian beliefs and traditions. These traditions have continued to blend and morph with the history of the continent, leading to the holiday we have today.
Who Was St. Valentine?
Understanding why Valentine’s Day became the holiday of love, requires us to look into the saint that gave the day his name. Unlike with Christmas and Saint Nicholas, this is a bit more difficult since there may actually be multiple Valentines who were ancient Roman priests who were martyred. We know so little about this saint that he was removed from the General Roman Catholic Calendar in 1969. In fact, the tales of St. Valentine’s miracles and preaching may be a combination tales about several different monks named Valentine, who lived around the persecution of Christians by the Roman Emperor Claudius II (also known as Claudius Gothicus).
Despite a ban, Valentine continued to marry young lovers in secret until he was caught and killed on February 14, 269 CE.
The story that most famously connects Saint Valentine with love has to do with why he may have been beheaded, though this story may not be contemporary. During the reign of Claudius Gothicus, the emperor outlawed marriage (either in general or of young soldiers, we couldn’t find it specified) because marriage could stop young men from becoming soldiers and be a distraction for already enlisted soldiers. Despite this ban, Valentine continued to marry young lovers in secret until he was caught and eventually killed, reputedly on February 14, 269 CE. He would later be honored with his own saint day on the Roman Catholic calendar by Pope Gelasius I, replacing an old Roman festival.
Is Valentine’s Day All About Sales?
As we’ve alluded to earlier in this article, Valentine’s Day is often accused of being a consumerist obligation masquerading as a celebration of love. While the day has certainly been taken advantage of, especially over the last century, it would be unfair to say this day is entirely an excuse to make you spend money. Similar to other “Why Do We Celebrate That?” entries, Valentine’s Day owes much of its connections to love to Lupercalia, the festival it replaced.
The Lupercalia would then run around Rome, lightly whipping women with the thongs, making them fertile for the year.
Lupercalia was a Roman festival of fertility and matchmaking, so you can see why it connects to modern Valentine’s Day. Unlike modern Valentine’s Day, Lupercalia was celebrated with animal sacrifice and random coupling, literally. Priests called the Luperci would sacrifice goats and a dog in the cave the founders of Rome were rescued in before making leather thongs from the goats. The Lupercalia would then run around Rome, lightly whipping women with the thongs, making them fertile for the year. The festival was also celebrated with a matchmaking lottery. The names of young women would be placed in a jar and later picked out by a young bachelor. These two would then be coupled for the festival, though many would stay together if they were a good fit. Some scholars dispute the existence of this matchmaking lottery, as well as Lupercalia’s connection to Valentine’s Day, so the debate continues.
Legendary author Geoffrey Chaucer was central to the modern romantic aspects of Valentine’s Day.
Even if there isn’t a direct correlation between Lupercalia and Valentine’s Day, the connection between the day and love are much older than the consumerist accusations. Legendary author Geoffrey Chaucer was central to reigniting the romantic aspects of Valentine’s Day, if not outright creating them whole cloth. His poem Parlement of Foules, written to commemorate the marriage of King Richard II to Anne of Bohemia, referenced Valentine’s Day as one for lovers (the very first written example connecting Valentine’s Day to love). Specifically (to save you from having to read Middle English), Chaucer sets the poem on Saint Valentine’s Day, when the birds gather to choose their mate for the year, ironically similar to the disputed matchmaking lottery of Lupercalia. The poem is also why we connect birds with the holiday, too.
Why Do We Send Cards and Candy?
Valentine cards and gifts are a central part of modern Valentine’s Day and the clearest example of a tradition that was invented purely to sell greeting cards, right? This actually couldn’t be further from the truth, as the first Valentine card predates consumer Valentine’s Day cards by nearly 400 years. Prior to that, they were handmade. In fact, the card that’s reputed as the very first was written by the Duke of Orleans, a prisoner in the Tower of London after the battle of Agincourt. In a poem known as *A Farewell to Love, the victor of Agincourt, would follow in Charles’ footsteps, by hiring author John Lydgate to write a Valentine letter for the queen, Catherine of Valois. By the time Hamlet was first performed in the early 1600s, the romantic connotations of the holiday were firmly entrenched.
Esther Howland worked to make the cards more affordable, which helped them to explode in popularity.
Until the late 1700s, Valentine’s greetings and poems were almost exclusively handmade and personal. The earliest existing pre-printed card is likely one from 1797, currently on display at York Castle. As printing technology advanced and pre-printed cards became cheaper to produce, they steadily replaced handmade ones. Esther Howland, called the Mother of the American Valentine, was influential in shifting the cards from a more humorous tone to one of romanticism. She also worked to make the cards more affordable, which helped them to explode in popularity. The day kept evolving, eventually becoming the day of love many love to hate.
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What we’ve learned is that Valentine’s Day isn’t simply the corporate sell-fest that it’s too often portrayed as, but a festival with a rich heritage and history. If you’re a Valentine’s Day hater, you can try reframing how you celebrate it! Instead of the classic dinner, chocolates, and flowers, try a romantic trip! Or, if you want to save some money, try surprising your significant other by cooking their favorite meal. Valentine’s Day is an excuse to show the person who matters most in your life how much they mean to you. Ultimately, that’s all that matters!