There are at least three different Saint Valentines, and there are a couple of different legends associated with the ‘Valentines Day’ St Valentine.
One is that he was a third century priest in Rome who married people secretly after the Emperor Claudius II figured out that single men made better soldiers and outlawed marriage. When Valentine’s actions were discovered, he was killed by the Emperor.
Another legend is that Valentine smuggled Christians out of Roman prisons and sent a love note (the ‘first valentine’) to a woman he was in love with who visited him, potentially a jailor’s daughter, and signed it ‘from your Valentine’.
Another jail related story is that Emperor Claudius II ordered everyone to only worship the Roman gods, but Valentine stuck to his Christian faith and was arrested for it. A jailer asked if his daughter Julia could visit Valentine as he was a man of learning and he taught her all about history, nature and God. He wrote her a note the night before his death and signed it ‘from your Valentine’.
‘St Valentine’ (whoever he was) is the patron saint of beekeepers, epilepsy, the plague, fainting, and of course engaged couples and happy marriages.
The reason that Valentines Day is in the middle of February most likely has nothing at all to do with any date of death for any of these Valentines. It is probably to do with the pagan festival of Lupercalia, a fertility festival dedicated to the Roman god of agriculture (Faunus) and the Roman founders Romulus and Remus. The Christian church tended to Christianise pagan festivals into Christian holidays or celebrations to help make an easier transition for pagans converting to Christianity as they wouldn’t be without their traditional celebrations.
Christmas is actually in December for a similar reason, it’s an updated version of the festival of Saturnalia. A tale for another day perhaps.
Lupercalia was officially outlawed in the 5th century as it was deemed un-Christian and the 14th of February was declared St Valentines Day by Pope Gelasius but it wasn’t until later, probably around the start of the Middle Ages, that Valentines Day became a holiday of ‘love’.
Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules may be the first connection of romantic love with Valentines Day in literature.
For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.
[“For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.”]
The oldest known ‘valentine’ in existence was written in 1415 by the Duke of Orleans to his wife while imprisoned in the Tower of London after the Battle of Agincourt – it is held by the British Library.
Paper valentines began to be sent via post in 18th century England and as postage prices dropped, the amount of valentines being sent increased through the 19th century. Mass produced cards started in America (no surprises there) in 1847 by an industrious young woman named Esther Howland, inspired by an English valentine she had received.
All in all, the history of Valentines Day is confused and largely lost in legends and stories. Whatever the truth of it was, our modern Valentines Day celebrations with chocolates, roses and mass produced cards wouldn’t be recognisable to Saint Valentine’s contemporaries.
But it is a nice excuse to get a little treat from your partner.
What is your Valentines Day tradition?