For most Americans, Valentine’s Day is a time for chocolates, roses, kisses, and other romantic sentiments. But the holiday’s history is a whole lot gruffer than the lighthearted and traditional practices we celebrate every Feb. 14. In fact, the background is both murky and violent, with a history that is practically impossible to nail down. Of particular confusion is St. Valentine’s identity, as the holiday’s central figure is a bit of an anomaly.
Let’s start with the fact that there was more than one St. Valentine. Catholic tradition honors three individuals who are named either Valentine or Valentinus. These men, all martyrs, purportedly died in shows of bravery — or while defending love (or a mixture of the two). One of the men was a priest in Rome, another was a bishop of Interamna (today this is Terni, Italy) and the third is a martyr who lived in the Roman province of Africa. Each of the men is connected in Catholic tradition to the Feb. 14 date.
According to History.com, one legend claims that Valentine was a priest during the third century. At the time, Emperor Claudius II, a Roman leader, decided to outlaw marriage for young men, alleging that single males made for more viable soldiers. The leader believed that he was having a hard time getting men to join the ranks, because they were tied down to their wives and children — so his solution was to simply do away with matrimonial bliss.
Rather than complying with this wedding ban, Valentine allegedly continued to marry young people in secret. According to legend, Claudius found out and Valentine was subsequently put to death; he was purportedly beheaded on Feb. 14 278 A.D.
But that’s only one of the tales. In another, Valentine was a brave individual who helped save Christians from the torture and abuse they experienced in Roman prisons. While he assisted these individuals in escaping, one account claims that he, too, was eventually imprisoned and that he sent the first “valentine” to a young girl (a guard’s daughter) whom he had fallen in love with. On the day he died, he purportedly sent her a note with a signature that read, “from your valentine.” We still use this tagline today.
A separate post on History.com merges the first story and this last one, claiming that the Valentine who was imprisoned and who sent the letter was the same one who was inevitably beheaded for performing secret marriages. Are you following? The outlet explains:
When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death. Valentine was arrested and dragged before the Prefect of Rome, who condemned him to be beaten to death with clubs and to have his head cut off. The sentence was carried out on February 14, on or about the year 270.
Legend also has it that while in jail, St. Valentine left a farewell note for the jailer’s daughter, who had become his friend, and signed it “From Your Valentine.”
For his great service, Valentine was named a saint after his death.
And that’s only a portion of the bizarre history. Valentine’s Day as we now know it may also have its roots in a pagan celebration known as the Feast of Lupercalia, a celebration that purportedly has roots in third-century Rome. As the Marblehead Reporter notes, the god Lupercus was seen as a protector of flocks of sleep from the wolves that were in the hills around the city. As a result of this protection, Romans would celebrate the deity on Feb. 15 each year.
Then, when Christianity spread, the pagan celebration was eventually discontinued and the date was moved from Feb. 15 to Feb. 14; Valentine’s Day inevitably replaced the former feast. History.com gives a slightly different account:
While some believe that Valentine’s Day is celebrated in the middle of February to commemorate the anniversary of Valentine’s death or burial–which probably occurred around A.D. 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 at the ides of February, or February 15, Lupercalia was a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, as well as to the Roman founders Romulus and Remus.
To begin the festival, members of the Luperci, an order of Roman priests, would gather at a sacred cave where the infants Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were believed to have been cared for by a she-wolf or lupa. The priests would sacrifice a goat, for fertility, and a dog, for purification. They would then strip the goat’s hide into strips, dip them into the sacrificial blood and take to the streets, gently slapping both women and crop fields with the goat hide. Far from being fearful, Roman women welcomed the touch of the hides because it was believed to make them more fertile in the coming year. Later in the day, according to legend, all the young women in the city would place their names in a big urn. 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.
While the history of Valentine’s Day is a murky one with tales that are impossible to pin down, a mixture of core attributes (bravery and love, to name just two) led to the holiday’s popularity. Today, it continues to inspire love and adoration — attributes that are at least somewhat present in the aforementioned myths.