This February 14th, you might send your sweetheart flowers or chocolates. You might take her out for a nice dinner with candlelight and violins playing softly in the background. It might be that you choose to sit at home alone with a bowl of popcorn and watch all of the above from your couch, a stack of romance movies just waiting to be watched. Valentine’s Day, or Saint Valentine’s Day, has been celebrated for thousands of years. However, what is now celebrated as the holiday of love actually has a surprising violent history.
The exact origins of the holiday are unclear, mangled by myths and legends, passed down from generation to generation. The holiday actually started as a Roman fertility festival called Lupercalia. It was celebrated on the fifteenth of February, and it was surprisingly quite violent. After sacrificing goats, men would cut strips of leather from them and run around whipping the women. It was Pope Gelasius that reshaped the festival around 496 A.D. It would now be known as a Christian feast day claiming February 14th as Saint Valentine’s Day and banning the pagan festivities.
The Catholic Church recognizes at least three different saints by the name of Valentine or Valentinus; all of them were martyred. It is a common belief among scholars that it was Priest Valentine that was named Patron Saint of Lovers. Information beyond that point isn’t very clear, as this is where the myths and legends start coming into play. One story suggests that the Roman Emperor, Claudius II had made it illegal for young bachelors to marry. Despite the new law, Valentine continued to perform marriages in secret, earning disfavor from the leader and being put to death. In another tale, Claudius has him imprisoned and Valentine falls in love with the jailor’s daughter. In this tale, he sends her a note before being executed, signing it “from your valentine.” The final story, and what is deemed the ‘most plausible’ by scholars, has nothing to do with love or affection at all; unless you are talking about agape love (a Christian or Godly love). In this fable, Valentine was martyred for refusing to renounce his religion.
The feast day did not officially become coupled with the idea of love until the 14th century when Geoffrey Chaucer, a poet in the middle ages, wrote a poem to celebrate the engagement of England’s King Richard II and Anne of Bohemia. Anne was the daughter of Charles IV, the king of Bohemia and a Holy Roman Emperor. According to Henry Ansgar Kelly, a medieval scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles and the author of Chaucer and the Cult of Saint Valentine, it was Chaucer that first linked February 14th with love.
The celebration of the saint was taken off the Catholic liturgical calendar in 1969, when the church decided to remove all the feast days celebrating saints of questionable origin. The reason for the removal of this particular holiday, was that apart from his name, nothing is actually known about Valentine, other than that he was buried on the Via Flaminia on February 14. Today Valentine’s Day is the second largest selling holiday according to the American Greeting Card Association (Christmas being the first). It is celebrated in many different parts of the world, including Mexico, Australia, Canada, France and the United Kingdom. Whatever way the celebration originated, it is celebrated in different ways all around the world. It brings different cultures together on what is now known as the holiday of love through common practices.