The History of Valentine’s Day

Valentine day composition with gift box and red hearts, photo template on pink background.

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Valentine day composition with gift box and red hearts, photo template on pink background.

Audrey Wallick, Staff Writer

In the words of the Greek Philosopher Socrates, “One word frees us of all the weight and pain in life. That word is Love.” The emotion of love has been notorious for causing people to do things they might have otherwise never thought of doing. Love is what has inspired some of the greatest songs, originated some of the most meaningful pieces of literature, and generated some people’s most cherished memories. Many people’s lives are even a result of love. Seeing as love has been a large part of society in the past and continues to be in the present, it is no surprise that a holiday was established in the name of it. But where did it all start? According to legend, Valentine’s Day is actually named after St. Valentine; however, there are multiple historical characters with the name St. Valentine and events that are associated with the holiday.

 One of the stories surrounds a Valentine who was a priest in Ancient Rome around 235–284 AD. At the time, Rome was at war, and many of the men had duties as  soldiers. The emperor believed young men without wives or children would be the best to send to fight because they did not have anyone depending on them at home. As a result, the emperor created a law that made it so no young men could get married. Valentine broke the emperor’s law by marrying young couples in secrecy. Unfortunately, Valentine was outed for his crime and sentenced to death. While incarcerated in a Roman prison, it is believed that Valentine fell in love with a woman. The name of this woman is unknown, but it is speculated that she may have been the daughter of the jailor. Some sources say that Valentine healed sick children in the jail and others say that he healed the jailor’s daughter of blindness. Furthermore, Valentine would write love letters to the jailor’s daughter before he was beheaded on February 14th. Valentine would sign the letters as “From Your Valentine.” This is where valentines that people send their lovers on Valentine’s Day originated. After his death, the Catholic church named Valentine a saint for not refusing his religion in the face of death.

Another possible root of today’s Valentine’s Day is derived from the pagan ritual, Lupercalia. This holiday was celebrated in Rome and ultimately surrounded fertility and health, taking place on the Ides of February (February 15th). It is possible that the name Lupercalia is based on the Latin root lupus which means wolf or relating to a wolf. This meaning may seem odd, yet it traces back to the mythology about two twin baby brothers, named Romulus and Remus, who were ordered to be thrown into the river to drown in order to punish their mother. Instead of carrying out the given order, a servant placed the brothers in a basket and floated them down the river where they were eventually rescued by a she-wolf. The she-wolf nursed the boys in what was later established as Rome until they were found and raised by a Shepherd. When the twins were grown, they killed the man who ordered their death and returned to the wolf den they were raised in. They named the den Lupercal and were believed to be the founders of Ancient Rome. 

To begin the Lupercalia ritual, Luperci priests would sacrifice two goats and a dog in the Lupercal den because of the animals’ strong sexual instincts. By doing so, the people believed the sacrifices would please Lupercus, god of fertility, and the next year’s animals would produce many offspring. The people then enjoyed a feast in celebration preceding the sacrifices. After eating, young men would use the animal hides to slap women in the city, in hopes of increasing their fertility. Another ritual done on Lupercalia was matchmaking. All of the young men in the city would draw the name of women and the pairs would be coupled during the entirety of the festival. Supposedly, many of the couples would stay together until the next year’s festival, or they would fall in love and get married. Some may recall events that took place during Lupercalia from reading Shakespeare:  “You all did see that on the Lupercal/ I thrice presented him a kingly crown,/ Which he did thrice refuse” (Julius Caesar 2.2.104-106). 

The holiday that people celebrate today, Valentine’s Day, is obviously far from the holiday people in Ancient Rome celebrated years ago. It is thought that an early pope of the Christian church prohibited Christians from taking part in Lupercalia because he believed it supported paganist behavior. The pope decided that people should celebrate St. Valentine’s Day on February 14th instead. Thus, Valentine’s Day as we know it was born.