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January 02, 2018


Overshadowed by Its Dark Origins: The Meaning Behind Valentine's Day

understanding history of valentine's

Valentine’s Day, or February 14th, has become one of the simultaneously best-loved and most-hated holidays in American pop culture. Some people take it in stride; using this holiday to shower family and friends in love and gifts. Others resent this idea, instead believing that love should be expressed every single day; not worthy of a holiday of its own. No matter what you believe, many people are surprised to discover  where this festival of love came from. You might have heard older people refer to it as “St. Valentine’s Day”, so you might have some inkling of an idea that it was inspired by some Catholic saint. Those are pretty close, but the truth is a little more complicated.

Unpacking the Origins  

In fact, the canon of the Catholic church acknowledges three different martyred saints – meaning they were executed for their religious beliefs – who went by the name Valentine or Valentinus. One of the legends is about a priest in 3rdcentury Rome. The emperor of the time had a theory that single men were better soldiers than married men and fathers, so he banned marriage. However, this priest performed secret marriage ceremonies for young lovers until he was put to death. Talk about romantic – if not a little morbid.

The second Valentine legend includes a Roman man who was killed for helping Christians escape prisons. At this time, Christianity was outlawed in Rome, where the only accepted godlike figure was the emperor. Conditions in Roman prisons were exceptionally harsh for Christians, where they were beaten, starved, and tortured in other ways. This one is not as romantic, but still believed to contain some historical accuracy.

The third and most popular St. Valentine legend features an imprisoned Christian man himself, and this is the origin of the use of “valentines” as greeting cards and love messages. Allegedly, this man fell in love with his jailor’s daughter, who often visited him while he was imprisoned. He would write her romantic letters and is rumored to have signed them “From your Valentine,” giving us the popular expression that we still use today!

 A Mixed Bag

valentines day background

Even though there is no one set origin of the Valentine holiday, each of the stories center around a brave, heroic, sympathetic, thoughtful, and even romantic individual.


During the Middle Ages, these Saints Valentine had become some of the most popular saints in Europe. As a result, a festival to commemorate the death and burial of Valentine soon came commonplace.

The date

It is hard to determine exactly why the date of February 14th was chosen. It is not likely that this is an actual anniversary of Valentine’s death, but rather that the Church picked that date in competition with Lupercalia, also called Februa or Februatus. This pagan festival was celebrated on February 15th and used cleansing rituals in worship of Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, to purge evil spirits and celebrate fertility. One of the many pagan rituals of this festival included all the maidens of the village placing their names into an urn, and all of the unmarried young men would draw out a name and spend the year wooing the maiden. Believe it or not, many of these pairings resulted in marriage!

Eventually, by the end of the 5th century, Lupercalia was banned by the Pope and February 14th was named St. Valentine’s Day. At this time, it was believed that this date was the beginning of the mating season for spring birds, adding to the air of romance that this date commemorated.

Historical accounts of Valentine's Day

Verbal Valentine’s greetings as we know them date back to the Middle Ages, when St. Valentine’s Day had been well-established for centuries. However, the oldest recorded written Valentine’s message is from 1415, and was a letter from an imprisoned Duke to his wife. It is also believed that King Henry V hired a writer to put together a Valentine’s letter for Catherine of Valois.

Ever since then, sending love notes became a common practice on February 14th, with 1797 seeing the publication of The Young Man’s Valentine Writer, suggesting romantic verses for young men who could not think of their own sweet sentiments. With the advent of the printing press, sending fancy cards became popular in England, eventually catching on America to the heartfelt tradition we celebrate today!

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