Most people understand that Valentine’s Day is a holiday associated with romance, hearts, and social appreciation. On this day, we express love to each other, send each other flowers, and reflect on our personal relationships.
But how exactly did we get here? Why do we have the traditions we have? And why is this still such a celebrated holiday?
You might already know that Valentine’s Day is technically named after St. Valentine – but you may not know that there are at least three different recognized saints named Valentine or Valentinus. Unfortunately, the stories and origins of these saints makes it hard to draw a clear line from any one of them to the holiday we celebrate today.
According to one story, one St. Valentine became recognized when he performed marriages for young lovers in secret, in defiance of an order from Emperor Claudius II. After being discovered, he was martyred. Another story is that St. Valentine was killed after attempting to help Christians escape Roman prisons, which were notoriously harsh places; in this story, Valentine sent romantic messages to his lover while being confined.
It’s perhaps most likely that the stories of all St. Valentines have become muddled, merging into one generic story of a Christian martyr linked to at least some romantic gestures.
Lupercalia and Official Recognition
Lupercalia was a pagan festival in Ancient Rome, celebrated on February 15. Its purpose was to purify the city, ultimately celebrating and promoting health and fertility. According to some historians, St. Valentine’s feast day (an early iteration of what we now know as Valentine’s Day) emerged as a way to “Christianize” this pagan fertility festival. Christians hijacked the date and shifted celebrations away from the Faunus (the Roman god of agriculture) and toward Christian traditions.
At the end of the 5th Century, Pope Gelasius officially declared February 14 to be St. Valentine’s Day – but at this point, the holiday wasn’t associated with romance or love.
Association With Love and Romance
So how did St. Valentine’s Day eventually become associated with love, romance, and chalky candy hearts?
There are a few potential explanations. In the Middle Ages, people in France and England believed that February 14 was the start of mating season for many birds. Because this date coincidentally lines up with St. Valentine’s Day, the holiday began to take on romantic connotations. This is exemplified by a Geoffrey Chaucer poem in 1375, Parliament of Foules, where he writes, “For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day / Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.”
“Valentine” messages started being sent in the 1400s, with the oldest known Valentine written and sent by Charles, Duke of Orleans, after being captured in the Battle of Agincourt.
Toward the Modern Era of Valentine’s Day
The meaning of Valentine’s Day (and some of its most important traditions) have been around for nearly 600 years, but the modern version of the holiday wasn’t really solidified until the 1800s. By 1900, cards were able to be designed and mass produced, offering a cheap and easy way for people to follow tradition by sending written messages. This, along with inexpensive postage rates, helped to popularize the holiday and make it accessible to everyone.
Valentine’s Day is now recognized and celebrated in many countries, including the United States, Canada, Mexico, France, Australia, and the United Kingdom.
Current Sentiments and the Future of the Holiday
So will Valentine’s Day continue to be a popular mainstream holiday for centuries to come?
That’s somewhat up in the air. According to a recent survey, not everyone feels excited about Valentine’s Day or likes to celebrate it. Roughly 54 percent of survey respondents said about the holiday, “I love it. It’s a fun way to celebrate the loved ones in your life.” An additional 21 percent said, “It’s just another day for me,” while 18 percent said “I don’t care for it. It’s too commercial.” On top of that, 7 percent of people say the holiday makes them feel sad and lonely.
For some people, Valentine’s Day is just an empty “Hallmark holiday” designed to trick people into spending money on things they don’t need. For others, it’s a reminder of their own loneliness, since they don’t currently have romantic interests to help them celebrate the holiday. A societal shift could easily create more people jaded about the holiday – though it would still take many years for the holiday to disappear entirely.
The next time you celebrate Valentine’s Day, take a moment to remember where this holiday came from. We may not have a perfect understanding of the earliest beginnings of this romantic day, but we do know the day and its traditions have been hundreds of years in the making.