Long before the commercialization of a certain February holiday we’ve all come to know well, St. Valentine’s Day had origins shrouded in mystery, recalling ancient Roman and Christian traditions and folklore.
According to one legend, Valentine was a priest who served Rome during the third century. Once Emperor Claudius II decreed that single men made better soldiers than those married and with family, he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine, recognizing the inequity of the modern law, defied Claudius and continued performing clandestine nuptials for young lovers. When Valentine’s covert activities were uncovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death.
Still, other stories suggest that Valentine may have been executed for attempting to aid Christians escaping harsh Roman prisons. Lore declares an imprisoned Valentine once dispatched the first “valentine” after falling in love with a young woman (thought to be his jailer’s daughter) who visited him during his incarceration. Before his death, it is said that Valentine penned a letter to his love, signed “From Your Valentine,” a sign-off still widely used today.
So, why February?
While some believe the holiday of adoration falls in February to mark the death of Valentine, other historians contend that the Christian church placed St. Valentine’s feast day on the 15th of February to impede ‘Lupercalia,’ a day celebrated with festivals of fertility and commemoration of founding Romans, Romulus and Remus. By placing the feast day on this date, leaders thereby ‘Chistianized’ the pagan ritual.
While Lupercalia endured the initial rise of Christianity, it was soon forbidden and deemed “un-Christian” at the end of the 5th century, when Pope Gelasius declared February 14th St. Valentine’s Day. It was not until centuries later, though, that the day became definitively linked with devotion.
In the midst of the Middle Ages, it was common belief in England and in France that February 14th marked the genesis of avian mating season, further cementing Valentine’s Day’s future as a holiday of love and affection.
14th century poet Geoffrey Chaucer was the first to record St. Valentine’s Day as a day of romantic celebration in his 1375 poem “Parliament of Foules,” writing “For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day / Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.”
Valentine greetings date as far back as the Middle Ages, though written valentines didn’t begin to appear in earnest until after 1400. The oldest known valentine, still in existence today, was an epistle written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while held captive in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt. The poem remains part of the manuscript collection of the British Library in London, England.
And, you? How do you display sentiments of tenderness and devotion?