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‘St. Valentine Baptizing St. Lucilla’ by Jacopo Bassano (1575), oil on canvas.

The Origin of Valentine’s Day

Every February 14, especially in the United States and Italy, candy, flowers and gifts are exchanged between loved ones, all in the name of St. Valentine. Though everyone knows the name, much less is known about the man associated with the most romantic day of the year. La Festa degli Innamorati pays homage to a priest who gave his life for the survival of love.

Saint Valentine, or Valentinus as he was then known, was born at the end of the second century in the Umbrian town of Terni. He moved to Rome, where he served as a priest. 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. He was martyred on February 14th in the year 273 and was buried on a hill outside the city walls of Terni, where now stands the Basilica of St. Valentine. The tale of Saint Valentine’s sympathetic, heroic and romantic actions spread throughout the country and by the Middle Ages, he was one of most popular saints in Europe.

The first Valentine’s Day was in the form of a pagan festival to commemorate not only the anniversary of Valentine’s death, but also to mark Lupercalia. Celebrated at the Ides of February on the 15th, Lupercalia was a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, as well as to the Roman founders, Romulus and Remus. Young women of the city would place their names in a large urn and the city’s bachelors would each choose a name and become paired for the year with his chosen woman. These matches often ended in marriage, giving further credence to the idea that February was a month of love.

In the 5th century during the rise of Christianity, Lupercalia was deemed un-Christian and was outlawed. In 496, Pope Gelasius cancelled this pagan rite and replaced it with a day to honor Saint Valentine, the priest who risked his life marring young couples in love. February 14 thus became Saint Valentine’s Day, a day synonymous with romance and the endurance of true love.