Graphic by Crystal Tran
U.S. adults are expected to buy $21.8 billion worth of products to celebrate Valentine’s Day in 2021¹. This is not a surprise to anyone who pays attention to American spending habits around this time of year. It’s an excuse to buy delicious chocolates, write in pretty cards, and go out to a fancy restaurant in the name of love. But the actual history of the holiday can be lost in the frenzy of shopping carts and teddy bears. Like Christmas, Valentine’s Day has become a vague cultural celebration in the modern world. There’s nothing wrong with this because all holidays will have to adapt and change as society progresses, but learning about the stories behind why we celebrate this special day can help us reconnect with our roots and understand the practices of the holiday.
The name St. Valentine may sound familiar. He is the reason for the holiday, after all. Some may even remember learning about him when they were younger, but the version of St. Valentine’s life they may have heard could be wildly different from someone else’s version.
The Catholic Church recognizes three separate St. Valentines, all with their own tragic deaths². One of the legends states that St.Valentine was a priest who dared to work for a wedding at a time when marriages between women and young men were forbidden. It was believed that single young men would make better soldiers, and so St. Valentine had broken an important law by allowing young men to marry the women they loved. For this crime, he was to be executed by order of the emperor. During his time in imprisonment, he fell in love with a young lady and wrote her a letter signed as “your Valentine”. This could explain why we affectionately use the term valentine today, and it would be the first historical example of a Valentine’s letter.
This story is the most widespread because it is the St. Valentine that is most known about. Another legend argues that it was St. Valentine of Terni (Terni being a city in Rome). The story beats are very similar. There are hidden weddings officiated by Bishop Valentine that get him in hot water with the Roman Emperor, and it eventually results in his execution. The general theme of sacrificing yourself for the sake of love is still there, but there are minor alterations from the one previously mentioned.
The same cannot be said about the other account of St. Valentine. This legend credits Valentine’s Day to a catholic missionary who suffered a gruesome death while in Africa. There is no detailed account of this story, which may make people suspicious at first, but historians have criticized the previous accounts for using details that seem melodramatic and not backed by historical evidence.
No matter what story of the three Valentines you believe to be true, it would take about 220 years after the death of St. Valentine (which is estimated to have taken place in 270 A.D.) for the Catholic Church to put the official stamp of approval on the holiday³. They would celebrate the new holiday on February 14th to replace a Pagan festival of love called “Lupercalia”. It is believed that this replacement of Lupercalia resulted in the stories of St. Valentine being warped to seem more romantic. The earliest documentation about St. Valentine has no special connection to marriage or love and just has him performing miracles through prayer before being killed. The new stories of St. Valentine caught the attention of many Europeans in the 1400s, which resulted in the figure being synonymous with all things lovely. They began passing written notes and flowers to show their appreciation to their loved ones, and fast-forwarding to the present day we can see how those traditions held up.
Even if the history of this special day is not what romantic couples have made it out to be, and even if the origins of St. Valentine’s day are confusing or untrue, knowing these legends can still reveal something very important. The popularity of this holiday is a testament to how a little bit of love can go a long way.
Additional Info: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/st-valentine-beheaded