The history of Valentine’s Day and the story of its patron saint is shrouded in mystery. However, scholars agree that February has long been celebrated as a month of romance and that St. Valentine’s Day, as we know it today, contains vestiges of both Christian and ancient Roman tradition. But who was Saint Valentine and how did he become associated with the day of love?
The Catholic Church recognizes at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom were martyred. One legend contends that Valentine was a priest who lived during the third century in Rome. When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death.
The imprisoned Valentine actually sent the first “valentine” greeting in a letter to a woman who visited him during his confinement. Before his death, it is alleged that he wrote her a letter signed, “From your Valentine,” an expression that is still in use today. Although the truth behind the Valentine legend is murky, the stories emphasize his appeal as a sympathetic, heroic and most importantly, romantic figure. By the Middle Ages, Valentine became one of the most popular saints.
While some believe that Valentine’s Day is celebrated in the middle of February to commemorate the anniversary of Valentine’s death, probably around the year 270, others claim that the Christian church may have decided to place St. Valentine’s feast day in the middle of February in an effort to “Christianize” the pagan celebration of Lupercalia. Celebrated as the ‘Ides of February’ or February 15, Lupercalia was a festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, as well as to the founders of Rome – Romulus and Remus.
Lupercalia survived the initial rise of Christianity but was outlawed, as it was deemed un-Christian at the end of the 5th century when Pope Gelasius declared February 14 to be St. Valentine’s Day. It was not until much later, however, that the day became definitively associated with love.
Valentine’s Day began to be popularly celebrated around the 17th century. By the middle of the 18th century it was common for friends and lovers to exchange small tokens of affection and handwritten notes. By the year 1900, printed cards began to replace written letters due to improvements in printing technology. Today, St. Valentine’s Day is known as a day of love and is celebrated around the world.