Each year on February 14 we peruse the store shelves for the perfect gift or card for a loved one. According to Hallmark, more than 163 million cards—not including packaged kids’ valentines—are exchanged. And it’s not just an American phenomenon. Valentine’s Day is celebrated in Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, France, Australia, Italy and Denmark.
But why? How did this holiday of love and romance originate and, more importantly, how did St. Valentine become involved? The answers to those questions are not easy ones. Valentine’s Day is a holiday shrouded in mystery and legend.
The origins of St. Valentine’s Day lie in the ancient Roman fertility festival Lupercalia, which was celebrated on February 15. During the festival, young women would place their names in a large urn. The young men would draw a name from the urn and then be romantically linked with that young woman for the following year. Still other legends cite the fact that February 14 marked the date when birds began mating.
A quick quiz: St. Valentine was:
a) a priest in the Roman Empire who helped persecuted Christians during the reign of Claudius II, was thrown in jail and later beheaded on Feb. 14.
b) a Catholic bishop of Terni who was beheaded, also during the reign of Claudius II.
c) someone who secretly married couples when marriage was forbidden, or suffered in Africa, or wrote letters to his jailer’s daughter, and was probably beheaded.
d) all, some, or possibly none of the above.
If you guessed d), give yourself a box of chocolates. Although the mid-February holiday celebrating love and lovers remains wildly popular, the confusion over its origins led the Catholic Church, in 1969, to drop St. Valentine’s Day from the Roman calendar of official, worldwide Catholic feasts. (Those highly sought-after days are reserved for saints with more clear historical record. After all, the saints are real individuals for us to imitate.) Some parishes, however, observe the feast of St. Valentine.
The roots of St. Valentine’s Day lie in the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia, which was celebrated on Feb. 15. For 800 years the Romans had dedicated this day to the god Lupercus. On Lupercalia, a young man would draw the name of a young woman in a lottery and would then keep the woman as a sexual companion for the year.
Pope Gelasius I was, understandably, less than thrilled with this custom. So he changed the lottery to have both young men and women draw the names of saints whom they would then emulate for the year (a change that no doubt disappointed a few young men). Instead of Lupercus, the patron of the feast became Valentine. For Roman men, the day continued to be an occasion to seek the affections of women, and it became a tradition to give out handwritten messages of admiration that included Valentine’s name.
There was also a conventional belief in Europe during the Middle Ages that birds chose their partners in the middle of February. Thus the day was dedicated to love, and people observed it by writing love letters and sending small gifts to their beloved. Legend has it that Charles, duke of Orleans, sent the first real Valentine card to his wife in 1415, when he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. (He, however, was not beheaded, and died a half-century later of old age.)