To many of us today, February 14 is a day of love. Couples are being lovey-dovey, kids are exchanging candy, and singles are binge-watching their favorite shows on Netflix. The traditions we celebrate today on Valentine’s Day date back to the Middle Ages, but the origin of this day itself is actually rooted in the Roman empire.
Valentine’s Day is based on the Catholic feast of St. Valentine. St. Valentine is known as the patron saint of love, but there is a lot of debate over who he actually was. There are three Saint Valentines recorded in the Catholic Encyclopedia. The first is a priest martyred in Africa, but little is known about him. Most historians believe that the day commemorates the deaths of Valentine of Rome and Valentine of Terni, but there is also speculation that the two saints were the same person. Valentine of Rome was a Roman priest from around A.D. 270 during the rule of Claudius II. According to History.com, Rome was involved in many bloody military campaigns under Claudius’ rule which required a strong military. The emperor believed that wives and families distracted men from their military duties and made them unwilling to join the army. As a result, Claudius banned all marriages and engagements. Valentine protested and married Christian couples in secret, but was caught, imprisoned, and sentenced for execution. While in prison, legends state that the saint fell in love with the jailor’s daughter and sent her a letter signed, “From your Valentine.” Valentine of Terni follows an almost identical story, so much so that most historians believe that the two saints may have been one figure.
As for the celebration itself, most historians believe that it was originally the pagan festival of Lupercalia, which would have taken place between February 13 and February 15. Lupercalia was a bloody and sexual festival associated with fertility and health. The festival would begin with the Roman priests, the Luperci, sacrificing male goats, which were a symbol of sexuality, and dogs.
Luperci would cut thongs from the hides of these animals and run around nearly naked, whipping women with the animal hides. This ritual was believed to enhance fertility. After this, men would pick names of women from a bucket and then the two would spend the night together. Historians theorize that in 496, Pope Gelasius I established the feast of St. Valentine on Feb. 14 in order to Christianize this celebration.
So how did this day become associated with love? Most scholars believe the idea started from literature. In the Middle Ages, Geoffrey Chaucer, author of “Canterbury Tales,” associated the February feast of St. Valentine with the mating of birds in his poem, “The Parlement of Foules”. His poem popularized the idea of this day being a day for couples. Writers such as Shakespeare jumped on this idea, as can be evidenced from “Hamlet” when Ophelia sings to Claudius. By Shakespeare’s time, people were gifting handmade cards to their special someone.
This holiday grew with the Industrial Revolution. Factories allowed for the mass-production of cards, candies, and chocolates. Today, Valentine’s Day is one of the biggest days for consumer spending, coming in third, just after the winter holidays and Mother/Father’s Day. According to the National Retail Federation (NRF), consumers in 2018 spent $19.6 billion dollars on Valentine’s Day related items. This year, they estimate that spendings will top the previous record of $19.7 billion dollars (2016) with $20.7 billion dollars.
To us today though, Valentine’s Day is a day of love. Whether you’re single or taken, enjoy this holiday of love and chocolate with someone (or something) dear to your heart.