Day of Love – the Complex Origins of Valentine’s Day
On February 14, couples from around the world recognize Valentine’s Day. For most, Valentine’s Day is a day of love, a day to shower your beloved with gifts and tokens of appreciation, to enjoy a nice meal with them, and to have moments of romance.
Many consider it to be a “Hallmark” greeting-card holiday, created by the retail business in order to get people to spend money on flowers, chocolates, stuffed animals, jewelry, travel, meals, and other luxuries (you can read about the history of Valentine’s Day cards here). However, Valentine’s Day is not a modern creation. Rather, it is a day with ancient roots, both cultural and religious. With many legends and tales surrounding Valentine’s Day, the supposed day of love, it can be difficult to ascertain exactly where and how Valentine’s Day originated.
Valentine’s Day is not a global holiday. It is celebrated in many countries, but its classification as a holiday is somewhat limited. It is also referred to as St. Valentine’s Day, or the Feast of Saint Valentine, which gives the impression that the celebrations on February 14 have Christian roots. However, the day is also said to have Pagan origins.
Some say that Valentine’s Day is rooted in an ancient Roman festival. During Roman times, an annual festival known as Lupercalia occurred from February 13 - 15 of each year. During this festival, men would strip naked and swat young maidens with dog- or goat-skin whips, to increase their fertility. This practice began well before Christianity was adopted within the Roman Empire, but continued after legalization of Christianity occurred.
The Lupercalian Festival in Rome by Adam Elsheimer ( Wikimedia Commons )
Greek historian Plutarch described Lupercalia in his works, recording, “Lupercalia, of which many write that it was anciently celebrated by shepherds, and has also some connection with the Arcadian Lycaea. At this time many of the noble youths and of the magistrates run up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they meet with shaggy thongs. And many women of rank also purposely get in their way, and like children at school present their hands to be struck, believing that the pregnant will thus be helped in delivery, and the barren to pregnancy.”
In “ Lifes of the Principal Saints” , Alban Butler claimed that a practice during Lupercalia, in which men and women would place their names in jars and the names would be drawn to create pairings, was the start of the ritual of exchanging Valentine’s Day love notes. However, there is no evidence linking Valentine’s Day to Lupercalia, or to the practice of pulling names to pair men and women into couples.
In 1382, Geoffrey Chaucer authored “ Parlement of Foules” , within which he wrote:
For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.
This translates to “ For this was on St. Valentine's Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.” There has been an assumption that Chaucer was referring to February 14 as Valentine’s Day, but there are many arguments under which Chaucer could have been referring to any number of days during the year. For example, it is unlikely that birds in the area would be choosing a mate during the winter month of February.
Portrait of Chaucer by Thomas Hoccleve in the Regiment of Princes (1412). Public Domain
Another possibility for the origin of Valentine’s Day involves Christian priest, St. Valentine. It is alleged that at one point, Roman emperor Claudius II banned marriage to prevent young men from avoiding the draft by marrying. Valentinus, a Christian priest, agreed to perform secret marriages for those who wished to become married. However, it has been argued that no such ban on marriage ever took place, and that Claudius II, in fact, urged his men to take multiple wives.
Another story of St. Valentine claims that a priest by such name was jailed when he fell in love with the warden’s daughter. He would write her notes signed “Your Valentine,” for which he was eventually beheaded. Many Christian priests named Valentine were martyrs, and Valentine’s Day is celebrated on February 14 in many Christian denominations. In the Anglican Communion it has the rank of 'commemoration' in the calendar of saints. The calendar of saints for the Lutheran church includes the feast of St. Valentine. However, in the Roman Catholic Church, the feast of St. Valentine was removed from the Roman Catholic Calendar of Saints in 1969.