Q: “What is Valentine’s Day all about? When did it start?”
February 14th is traditionally known as St. Valentine’s Day, and commonly known as Valentine’s Day. The ‘day of love’ has been celebrated for hundreds of years similarly to today’s exchange of heart-shaped boxes of chocolates, bouquets of flowers, gifts and cards that say “I love you.” In fact, as History.com’s site explains, the very first Valentine card was from a priest who’s name was Valentine (although it seems that there were more than one Father Valentine).
Legend has it that one of these priests was defiantly performing wedding ceremonies for couples in secret. The Roman emperor, Claudius II , also known as “Claudius the Goth”, had outlawed marriage by young men since they were needed for war, knowing that if a man falls in love and starts a family, he is less likely to leave his homeland to fight. If true, then the origins of Valentine’s Day date back to around 269 AD when Valentine was beheaded – many hundreds of years ago! Valentine was also known as a great healer and while in jail, he befriended the jailor’s daughter. It is said that he performed a miracle to heal her sight and they became good friends. When he was due to be executed, he wrote her a farewell letter and signed it, “From Your Valentine.”
There are some conflicting thoughts about the exact origins of Valentine’s Day and the date on which we celebrate it. One speculation, from The Holiday Spot online and others, is that the date of the holiday stems from the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalis/Lupercalia. Another resource, the Catholic Encyclopedia, states that “…archaeologists have unearthed a Roman catacomb and an ancient church dedicated to Saint Valentine. In 496 AD Pope Gelasius marked February 14th as a celebration in honor of his martyrdom.”
The Education.com site’s article by Hannah Boyd gives a brief explanation of the origins of Valentine’s Day, with historical facts and legends that are consistent with other sources. One interesting fact is that “The British Library in London owns the oldest known Valentine, a letter written by Charles, the Duke of Orleans…” You can see a scanned copy of this valentine on the BBC’s site. Apparently the Duke was imprisoned at the time he wrote his love poem (valentine) to his beloved wife. The site, “Life in the Pyrenees Orientales” with Gill Storey, gives a partial translation of this first valentine.
It wasn’t until the 14th century and through the works of the great poet Chaucer that St. Valentine’s Day became eternally linked with love. As “The History of Valentine’s Day” is described on The Holiday Spot:
- UCLA medieval scholar Henry Ansgar Kelly, author of “Chaucer and the Cult of Saint Valentine”, credits Chaucer as the one who first linked St. Valentine’s Day with romance. In medieval France and England it was believed that birds mated on February 14. Hence, Chaucer used the image of birds as the symbol of lovers in poems dedicated to the day. In Chaucer’s “The Parliament of Fowls,” the royal engagement, the mating season of birds, and St. Valentine’s Day are related:
“For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, When every fowl cometh there to choose his mate.”