by K.J. Howe
Valentine’s day holds a special place in our hearts. A holiday set aside to celebrate love in all of its forms—romantic, filial, parental, for pets, teachers, and anyone else you might want to include. It’s also an excuse to wear red, buy presents, and eat tons of chocolate. What more could one ask for? But inquiring minds want to dig a bit deeper. Just who was this Saint Valentine and where did this tradition originate?
Interestingly, we can’t be sure which Saint Valentine the day is named after or what the real origin of this holiday was:
The name Valentine was very popular in late antiquity (its root found in the Latin “valens” meaning worthy, strong or powerful) and no less than 14 recognized saints share that name from the period, seven of whom who died on February 14th. Scholars have narrowed the field down to three Saint Valentines who are the most likely candidates behind the holiday. The confusion has existed for over 1500 years because when the feast of Saint Valentine was first established by Pope Gelasius I in 496, he included Saint Valentine among those “whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are only know to God.”
As time passed, tradition merged at least two of the three Saint Valentines into a single mythological figure who forms the basis of modern traditions. By the time the Middle Ages rolled around, Saint Valentine was a Christian persecuted for his faith and interrogated by the Emperor Claudius II in person. When Claudius tried to convince Valentine to accept paganism to save his life, Valentine responded by trying to convert Claudius to Christianity to save his soul. We all know how that attempt worked out, but even after his execution had been ordered, Valentine performed a miracle by curing Julia—daughter of his jailor Asterius—of her blindness. In turn, Asterius and his forty-six-member household converted to Christianity.
The legend developed and later the story included Saint Valentine writing a final note to Julia the night before his execution which he signed “Your Valentine,” the origin of how Valentine’s cards are signed today. Further expansion of his story included the tale that this historic cupid performed secret Christian weddings for Roman soldiers who had been forbidden to marry. At the weddings, he would cut out heart shapes from parchment paper and give them to the newlyweds to remind them of their vows and commitments.
Like several other parts of modern folklore, the first recorded association of St. Valentine’s Day comes to us from Geoffrey Chaucer, who in 1382 wrote:
“For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.”
Chaucer insinuated that he was only expressing a well-established tradition, but it remains our earliest association of the date with romantic notions. The idea of birds choosing their mates on February 14th was quickly emulated by several other authors, and by the year 1400, the date was enshrined in the “Charter of the Court of Love” as a day that was celebrated with a feast, amorous song and poetry competitions, jousting, and dancing. The attending ladies would hear and rule on disputes from various lovers. Whether these celebrations actually took place is debatable, but they sure made for entertaining reading.
From the 1400’s onwards, Valentine’s Day gained momentum, appearing in private letters and even earning a reference in Shakespeare’s Hamlet:
To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.
Then up he rose, and donn’d his clothes,
And dupp’d the chamber-door;
Let in the maid, that out a maid
Never departed more.
— William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 5
Valentine’s Day has become a powerful meme, accepted across many cultures and religious denominations. St. Valentine remains on the official church calendar for the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Eastern Orthodox, and several other denominations. And while the real explosion in the modern world started in English-speaking countries (lead by the UK), it has become a ubiquitous celebration. Singaporeans, Chinese, and South Koreans now spend the most money on Valentine’s gifts!
It has also become an economic force, with approximately $19.6 billion dollars spent on an average year just in the United States—and about $1.8 billion of that is spent on candy alone, and $650 million is spent on gifts for pets. In fact, cat owners spend about 20% more on Valentine’s gifts for their kittens than dog owners spend on their animals. Fascinating…
Valentine’s Day epitomizes the amazing power of a positive idea. From a fairly obscure Christian feast day, the idea has spread across the globe, touching many cultures and billions of lives. A clear demonstration of the power of love. Happy Valentine’s Day to you all!
Who will be your Valentine this year?
I love Valentine's Day and yet, I had no idea of this interesting history. Thanks, Kim, for the research and stories. Now it's time for chocolate!
I had no idea, Kim! So grateful for the wonderful stories you tell that ended up creating one of my all-time favorite holidays! ❤️
It still seems a little funny that we celebrate with champagne and chocolate the day that some guy was executed, but any holiday that involves candy is all right in my book.
Agree with Lisa–odd choice to celebrate but any day that involves chocolate is a good day in my book!
Fourteen Saint Valens died on February 14th? Crazy. I had no idea what inspired Valentine's Day, and this gives it a different spin. I've always been a little indifferent about Valentine's Day. Love the chocolate. Love the flowers. Hate knowing that the commercialism of the holiday hurts some. I can remember counting Valentine's as a young child. We'd make boxes in school, and classmates would put Valentine's in your box. I can remember how everyone counted, and some didn't get as many as others. Of course, later they began to insist that all kids who participated give Valentine's to everyone. A dear friend of mine was the class sweetheart. She got all the good Valentine's–declarations of love from the class crush and all the other boys. And who can forget the girl in the dorm who got nothing when everyone else around her received flowers or dinner dates. I've been fortunate to never feel crushed, but I have friends who weren't so lucky. So, all you Rogue Readers, Let's be Valentine's!