The History of Valentine’s Day

Many people only consider Valentine’s Day to be a corporate-money grab. However, the roots and culture of Valentine’s Day actually stretch much farther than that. Beginning in 270 A.D. and evolving to the holiday we love, Valentine’s Day has stuck itself to the hearts of all of us.

An obvious answer to the roots of Valentine’s Day is the presence of St. Valentine, who is recognized by the Catholic Church. St. Valentine is thought to have been a Roman priest who fell victim to martyrdom during the persecution of Christians during the 2nd Century. He was beheaded by Emperor Claudius II for performing secret marriages and engagements. In a secondary legend, while imprisoned and waiting for his execution, Valentine wrote and left a goodbye note to a friend signed “From Your Valentine.” This message is largely considered the first ever “valentine.”

Though Valentine’s Day can be considered a celebration of the sacrifices made by St. Valentine, it’s often claimed that it is actually the Christianization of the pagan festival, Lupercalia. The celebration took place on Feb. 15 and honored the Roman god of agriculture, Faunus, as well as celebrating Romulus and Remus, whose story depicts them as the founders of Rome. However, unlike Valentine’s Day today, this festival was bloody, contained many ritual sacrifices and was outlawed at the end of the 5th Century for being unchristlike. Pope Gelasius I, responsible for banning the celebration, replaced it with St. Valentine’s commemoration.

It wasn’t until late 14th Century that Valentine’s Day developed a connection with love and affection. In a 1375 poem, “Parliament of Foules,” Geoffrey Chaucer declared Valentine’s Day a romantic holiday. His poem walks readers through the story of a group of birds who choose their mates on ‘Seynt Valentynes Day,’ or early spring. It sparked a tradition, where admirers and lovers would declare their love through written valentines, similar to the ones that are written now.

Once written valentines had become popular, Cupid began rising in popularity. Cupid, the Roman version of the Greek God Eros, son of Aphrodite, rules over love and sexual desire. Romans infantilized him- reforming him from his Greek version, a powerful and chaotic man, to a baby angel controlled by his mother. Around the early 1900s, Cupid became the poster-cherub of Valentine’s day. Due to the mass production of postal cards, cupid imagery became plastered on every Valentine letter.

The rich and compelling history of Valentine’s Day has made this wholesome holiday worthy of appreciation, and created the celebration of love that we know today. So while Valentine’s Day may be a bit exploitative on the surface, it is an important reminder to cherish and show gratitude for the connections, friendships, and relationships in our lives.