Aside from the idea that Valentine’s Day is just another way for greeting card companies, florists and chocolatiers to make a little more money, there are some reasons that we in the Western world celebrate Valentine’s Day.
Who Was St. Valentine?
As with so many of these traditions revolving around martyred saints, there is some degree of murkiness surrounding St. Valentine. There are generally held to be three different saints of that name, martyred in the early centuries of Christianity. There was a St. Valentine of Terni (killed around AD 197), St. Valentine of Rome (killed around AD 269), and a third St. Valentine who is mentioned as being martyred in Africa along with companions. This is the date given as February 14th.
By the 14th Century, no one really paid any attention to the differences between the saints named Valentine, and romantic stories grew up around the idea of a saint. In one story, Valentine performs secret marriages in defiance of the emperor of Rome, who wanted unmarried men for his armies. In another, Valentine is jailed, falling in love with the jailer’s daughter. He sends her handwritten notes, signed, “your Valentine.”
Indeed, while Christians celebrated Saint Valentine’s Day as a religious feast beginning in 498 AD, thanks to Pope Gelasius, but the idea of romance being associated with the saint’s day was not really popularized, some thing, until the 14th Century, when Geoffrey Chaucer‘s works of courtly love were all the rage. (And it helped that some in England and France many believed that the middle of February marked the beginning of mating season for birds.) But there are some, of course, who point out that the feat of Saint Valentine occurred remarkably close to a pagan holiday.
Valentine’s Day and Lupercalia
The middle of February was an important time of year in Ancient Rome. It marked an important fertility festival aimed at the god of agriculture. This time of year was also a time to commemorate the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus. Part of the rites of the festival included women and crop fields being lightly touched with strips of goat’s hide dipped in sacrificial blood. This was meant to help with fertility. Later, the names of eligible young women were put into a large urn, and drawn out to be paired with eligible young men. The couples were to be together for a year. Reports say that this system usually resulted in marriage.
Some speculate that, like so many Christian holidays, the observance of Saint Valentine’s Day was instigated as a way to Christianize a pagan holiday that already existed. Of course, the pope soon outlawed the idea of pairing couples by drawing out names, and different religious observances rose up around the day.
Valentine’s Day Today
Today we see Valentine’s Day cards sent and received, and couples are supposed to exchange tokens of love for each other. The oldest Valentine still available for our perusal is one written in 1415 by the Duke of Orleans after his capture during the Battle of Agincourt. Hand-produced cards were replaced by mass produced cards by the end of the 18th Century, and Valentine’s Day had become a day for friends to exchange tokens of affection, as well as romantic lovers. Today, though, most people consider Valentine’s Day one meant for romantic love — or a day to defy convention and revel in being single.