History of Valentines Day: why did it all begin?

Monica Vandenbil

Editor in Chief


What do defiant priests, Pagan festivals and Roman traditions all have in common?  They all play a role in the murky legends of how St. Valentine’s day came to be.  While many opinions and theories exist about the exact origin of this day of romance, most agree it lies in Roman and Christian tradition.

So just who was this great St. Valentine? According to history.com, one legend paints him as a priest who was murdered for defying the law against marriage imposed by the Roman Emperor Claudius II.  The Emperor believed single men made better soldiers than married men and consequently outlawed marriage.  Valentine saw this unjust act as a violation of man’s rights and continued to marry couples anyway.  Valentine selflessly sacrificed his life to ensure the happiness of others.

Another folklore suggests that Valentine fell in love with a jailer’s daughter while imprisoned.  Before his death he left a note for his lover and signed it as, “From your Valentine.” This signature became a symbol of the ultimate love, and has over the years become a popular way to express such emotion.

The primary reason February was chosen as the month to commemorate St. Valentine is because it has always been viewed as a month of romance.   Some believe the middle of the month was picked because it coincided with St. Valentine’s death.  Another theory—and a more interesting one at that—is that ST. Valentine’s day was created to “Christianize” a Pagan celebration known as Lupercalia.

In Ancient Rome, Lupercalia marked the beginning of spring and a time for purification.  Houses were ceremoniously swept out and sprinkled with salt and spelt, a type of wheat.  Beginning on February 15, a fertility festival was dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture.  The celebration was also dedicated to Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome.  Legend has it that these founders were discovered in a cave as infants, and survived off of the milk of a she-wolf, or lupa.

During the festival, special Roman priests served as members of a group know as the Luperci.  These priests would gather at the sacred cave where Romulus and Remus were found.  Once there, they sacrificed a goat for fertility and a dog for purification.  After the sacrifice was completed, boys would cut the goat hide into strips and dip it in sacrificial blood.  They would then go around town and gently slap the strips of hide at the crop fields and women.  Although a bit bizarre to us now, the Roman women saw the ceremony as a way to improve their fertility in the coming year.

The final part of the celebration for Lupercalia included single women placing their names into an urn.  Eligible bachelors would then pick names out of the urn to randomly select a date.  Often, these pairings ended in marriage.

Over time this lottery system of choosing a partner was considered inappropriate and thus ceased.  Pope Gleasius officially declared February 15 as St. Valentine’s day towards the end of the fifth century.

Great Britain modernized St. Valentine’s Day into the celebration we are familiar with today.  The holiday gained popularity over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  All social classes would exchange small gifts with friends and lovers as signs of affection.  By the late 1700s, improvements in printing techniques led to the replacement of hand written letters by printed cards.  This method was much more favorable because at the time directly expressing your feelings for someone was frowned upon by society.  Another factor that increased the popularity of the cards was cheaper postage.

Across the pond, the United States began to exchange Valentine’s Day cards in the early 1700s.  Esther A. Howard was the first person in America to mass-produce Valentine’s sometime in the 1840s.  She became known as the “Mother of the Valentine” for her splendid creations of ribbon, lace, and colorful pictures know as scrap.

The history of St. Valentine’s Day is both rich and exciting.  It is very apparent that our modern celebration of the day is a far cry from those of the past.  However, it has and always will be a time to shower our loved ones with affection and show them just how much we care.



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