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Valentine’s Day as we know and celebrate it today has its roots in 18th century England, in which it became customary for friends, family and romantic partners to exchange small tokens of affection, notes and flowers.
Since then, Valentine’s Day has evolved into a global celebration of love and affection. However, the origin of Valentine’s Day has much more meaningful history that tells the story of the martyr Saint Valentine.
Etymology and Timing
Valentine’s Day is celebrated annually on February 14th, which historians have correlated with the ancient Roman celebration of Lupercalia which was celebrated in the middle of February. There is strong evidence that reveals the Roman Catholic Church, which was seeking to Christianize various pagan holidays in effort to Christianize the European people, converted the celebration of Lupercalia to Saint Valentine’s Day.
Origin and History
Lupercalia was the ancient Roman pagan celebration and fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture. During Lupercalia, young men would draw names of young women from a box, and they would be paired as partners for the duration of the festival. This event included various rituals and activities aimed at promoting fertility.
Lupercalia and Valentine’s Day is connected by historians and is believed to have occurred during the early Christian era. In the 3rd century, there was a Christian priest named Valentine (or Valentinus) who lived in Rome.
The exact details of his life are obscured, but there are many writings and stories concerning accounts of his works. He is often associated with acts of kindness, such as performing marriages for soldiers despite a ban imposed by the Roman emperor.
The history of Saint Valentine is somewhat shrouded in mystery, and there are various accounts and legends associated with different individuals named Valentine or Valentinus. The details of their lives have become intertwined over time. The historical context and the most commonly associated stories are outlined as follows:
Early Christian Martyrs
During the Roman Empire, there were at least three saints or martyrs named Valentine or Valentinus who lived in the 3rd century. They are often referred to as Saint Valentine of Rome, Saint Valentine of Terni, and a third Valentine from Africa. The exact identities and stories of these individuals have been conflated over the centuries.
Saint Valentine of Rome
This is the most commonly recognized Valentine associated with Valentine’s Day. According to one legend, Valentine of Rome was a Christian priest during the reign of Emperor Claudius II. The emperor had forbidden young men from marrying because he believed that unmarried soldiers made better fighters. However, Valentine defied this decree and continued to perform marriages in secret. When his actions were discovered, he was imprisoned and later executed on February 14th, around the year 269 or 270.
Saint Valentine of Terni
Another possible candidate for the identity of Saint Valentine was a bishop named Valentine of Terni, located in present-day Italy. Like the Roman Valentine, he was also said to have performed marriages against the emperor’s orders. He was martyred during the persecution of Christians under Emperor Aurelian. Some accounts suggest that Valentine of Terni and Valentine of Rome may have been the same person.
Legends and Stories
Besides the stories of the Roman and Terni Valentines, there are other tales associated with the name Valentine. When Saint Valentine was imprisoned for his faith he witnessed to the jailer about his faith. To put him to the test the jailer took him to see his blind daughter whom Valentine miraculously healed.
When Valentine was arrested again in the future and sentenced to death by beheading, he wrote a letter to the jailer’s daughter whom he had supposedly became romantically involved with. He signed the end of the letter with ‘from your Valentine.’ These stories range from acts of compassion and healing to miraculous events. However, due to the lack of historical evidence, these accounts are often considered legendary or apocryphal.
Evidence for Saint Valentine
The historical records from the time period are often limited, and the legends and stories surrounding Saint Valentine have evolved and become intertwined over the centuries. There are a few bodies of evidence form which we can derive the historical facts.
The earliest mentions of Saint Valentine can be found in the Catholic martyrologies, which are official lists or registers of Christian martyrs. The Martyrologium Hieronymianum, compiled between the 4th and 5th centuries, includes a mention of a Saint Valentine who was martyred in Rome on February 14th. However, these early records provide minimal information about his life.
The period in which Saint Valentine is believed to have lived was marked by widespread persecution of Christians, and the records of many early Christian martyrs are limited. This further complicates the task of finding conclusive proof of his existence.
Letters of St. Valentine
There is a claim that Saint Valentine left a letter or note before his execution addressed to a woman he had healed, signing it as “Your Valentine.” While this story has become a popular aspect of Valentine’s story, there is no concrete historical evidence to support it.
A church in Dublin displays an exhibit of St. Valentine’s heart. The Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome, Italy contains a display with the skull of Saint Valentine. San Antonio’s Church in Madrid Spain also claims to house the remains of Saint Valentine that were discovered in the Roman catacombs at the end of the 18th century.
Given these factors, it is difficult to provide the details for Saint Valentine’s life. However, the commemoration of Saint Valentine and the associated stories have persisted for centuries within tradition, leading to the establishment of the Valentine’s Day.
Religious Beliefs & Ceremonies
The association of Valentine’s Day with love gained popularity through the works of poets and writers. In the 14th century, the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer wrote a poem called “Parlement of Foules” which described birds choosing their mates on Valentine’s Day. This contributed to the romanticization of the holiday.
Over time, the commemoration of St. Valentine became intertwined with romantic love. During the Middle Ages, it was commonly believed in England and France that birds began their mating season on February 14th. This further contributed to the association of Valentine’s Day with love and romance.
Feast of St. Valentine
In the 5th century, Pope Gelasius I established the Feast of St. Valentine on February 14th to honor the martyrdom of Saint Valentine. However, there were multiple Christian martyrs named Valentine, and it’s unclear which one the feast specifically commemorates.
Significant Icons or Attributes
The traditional heart symbol is used today to symbolize Valentine’s Day.
The traditions of the love festivals and artistic imaginations have invoked imagery making use of cupids (or the Cupid) which are used to symbolize angels depicted as chubby little babies referred to as cherubim, who bringing love to romantic parties. The ancient Roman god of love was Cupid, or Eros in Greek Mythology, once again making referring back to the Roman origins of the holiday.
It should be noted that this depiction of Cherubim is erroneous as the Bible does not describe angels in this manner; this depiction is simply a matter of artistic imagery from the renaissance era with no basis in theology.
Symbolic and Associated Foods
Romantic Dinner – Many people celebrate Valentine’s Day by going out for a romantic dinner. Restaurants often offer various gourmet options.
Chocolate – Chocolate is perhaps the most iconic food associated with Valentine’s Day. It is often given as a gift or used in desserts. Heart-shaped chocolates, chocolate truffles, and chocolate-covered strawberries are popular choices.
Red Berries – Red berries like strawberries, raspberries, and cherries are associated with love and passion due to their vibrant color.
Sweet Treats – Valentine’s Day is a time for exchanging sweet treats with loved ones. Cookies, cupcakes, and candies, often decorated with hearts and messages of love, are commonly shared on this day.