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The History of Valentine’s Day (And What We Can Learn From It!)

Pierrette Rouleau, PhD

About Pierrette:  Pierrette is most fulfilled when she is working on behalf of someone else...

About Pierrette:  Pierrette is most fulfilled when she is working on behalf of someone else...

Feb 11 7 minutes read

The History of Valentine’s Day (And What We Can Learn From It!)

How have your Valentine’s traditions changed with COVID-19?

Will you slap on a pair of heart-shaped safety glasses?

Send sealed and sanitized Valentine cards to all your colleagues?

Buy a box of truffles and snag a limited reservation at one of Asheville’s fine dining eateries?

Prefer to cook a nice, quiet meal at home?

Protest any celebrations based on discouraging the quintessential “Hallmark Holiday”?

How did we get here? To a place where 6 ft tall teddy bears are sold at every corner store. Where feelings are often hurt if this arbitrary date is forgotten?

Well… the Origins Are A Little Unclear 

Many stories exist about the infamous St. Valentine. There may have even been more than one guy named St. Valentine. But the stories about him all have a few things in common:

A society trapped in darkness. And a heroic figure empathetic to the struggles of the common man.

Black Market Marriage Licenses

In 3rd century Rome, Emperor Claudius II made a controversial decision. He'd concluded that single men made better soldiers than married men. Something about wanting to return home to a warm bed, good meal, and loving family didn’t bode well for warfare.  And so, he decided to outlaw marriage.

If history has taught us anything about law making it's this: 

Outlawing something popular will only make it more desirable (cough *prohibition* cough). 

Saint Valentine thought the ruling was completely unjust. After all, what is a life without love?

He proceeded to marry young couples in secret. He was discovered. Soon after he was martyred for his actions. His martyrdom transformed Saint Valentine into a figurehead for love and romance.

Prison Break

The second Saint Valentine legend ends... and begins… with a jail sentence. Emperor Claudius II (a malicious character in all versions of the story), kept horrendous prison conditions. His jails were overflowing with Romans who'd committed small, petty crimes. Often the definition of "crimes" was arbitrary, depending on the mood of the Emperor. The prisoners were malnourished and tortured to no end.

Saint Valentine would not stand for this kind of treatment of his people. So he opted to create a type of underground railroad. He'd release prisoners and help them to safety. During this time, Saint Valentine is rumored to have fallen in love with the jailer’s daughter. She was helping him plan his escape routes. Their love affair was brief. Saint Valentine was quickly caught and imprisoned. Before his martyrdom, he sent the jailer’s daughter one last love note. He signed it “from, your Valentine”. The very first Valentine's card that was given that day.

Discontinuing Pagan Traditions

Other historians claim that the February 14th holiday was strategic.

February 15th was the pagan celebration of Lupercalia. Christian faith leaders wanted to overshadow this celebration with their own holiday.

Pagans would gather at the cave where Romulus and Remus, founders of Rome, were born. Goats and dogs were sacrificed to represent purity and fertility. They would then dip the hides of each animal into vats of their drained blood. Then, the pagans would parade out into the farms and fields, hitting on women.

Yes, they would quite literally hit on them. They'd slap the blood-soaked hides onto the faces of the women in the community.

The women welcomed the opportunity. It was believed that this action would make them more fertile in the coming year.

The Name is Valentina, Not Valentine

Did you know there is also a female St. Valentine— or Valentina? Typical of female figures at that time, nothing about her life or story was recorded. But if you prefer to honor the feminine saint, you can celebrate St. Valentinas Day on July 25th instead, to commemorate the day she was martyred in Palestine. 

Want to meet St. Valentine in person? He’s still around. 

Wait… what?

Yep, that’s right.

You can have a nice (one-sided) chat with his skull, which can be found in the Basilica di Santa Maria in Rome. 

If macabre-tourism is your thing, you can also visit: 

His shoulder blade in Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul in the Czech Republic. 

A small vessel of his blood in Whitefriar Church in Dublin. 

Fun Facts:

Predictably, Saint Valentine is the patron saint of engaged and married couples.

Unpredictably, he’s also the patron saint of beekeeping, epilepsy, traveling, and the plague.

During the Victorian era, sweethearts would exchange hand-crafted, lace-lined valentines. But ladies would also give “vinegar valentines” to any suitors they weren’t a fan of. They were pretty harsh. Here are a few examples: 

“To My Valentine: 

‘Tis a lemon that I hand you 

And bud you now ‘Skidoo’

Because I love another—there is no chance for you” 

“Hey, Lover Boy, 

The place for you is home on the shelf 

‘Cause the only one who’d kiss you

Is a yourself!”

The Impact of Nature & Literature

In the Middle Ages, it was commonly believed that mid-February kicked-off mating season for birds. We now know that spring triggers off this natural event for love-birds. But the impact of this belief may have been enough to jump-start this holiday.

Curiously, there was also no mention of St. Valentine’s day in the history annals until after Geoffry Chaucer wrote“Parliament of Fowls” in 1375. This poem depicts a feast celebrating Saint Valentine and a lively discussion between a group of male birds as they attempt to seduce a female. 

So which story is true? 

Perhaps they all have a little truth to them.

Which acorn dropped into the forest and grew a shady oak tree?

Which nail is responsible for building your home?

All our lives— and all our history—are built from a collective.

Let's simply enjoy the festiveness of the day.

Make time to celebrate your loved ones every day. But this year, on February 14th, do something out of the ordinary.

Take time to tell your story.

Stories are powerful.

And otherwise, your story may one day be referred to in historical annals as "shrouded in mystery". If I'm certain about anything... it's that the living Saint Valentine would not have seen that coming.

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