Valentine’s Day is more than just a day for heart-shaped confections, romantic cards, and displays of love between romantic partners. The history of Saint Valentine’s Day dates to 500 A.D., when Pope Gelasius I established it as a feast day in honor of Saint Valentine. Although, exactly which Saint Valentine the holiday honors has blurred with history. There were two Saint Valentines, both buried on the Via Flaminia, a famous Roman road to the Adriatic Sea. One, Valentine of Rome, and the other Valentine of Terni, both reportedly buried on the Via Flaminia on February 14.
Prior to the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, Saint Valentine’s Day was a feast day, which celebrated the life of Saint Valentine. However, in the late 1960’s, the Roman Catholic Calendar of the Saints eliminated Saint Valentine’s Day due to lack of clear historical information on the Saint. History is widely varied in its reports of Saint Valentine. Many believe that he secretly wed couples when Roman Emperor Claudius II banned the practice of marriage. Upon his capture, his devotion allowed him to heal the sight of his jailer’s daughter, Julia. Before his execution, he left her a note of affection signed ‘from your Valentine.’
Many historians believe that Saint Valentine’s Day was crafted by the Roman Catholic Church to supersede a pagan holiday in honor of the Roman god, Lupercus. The pagan holiday celebrated the rite of passage of adolescent boys into manhood. The celebration included a public lottery in which adolescent girls were assigned to these young men for one year. The Roman Church outlawed the pagan holiday, and substituted saint’s names for the names of single women in the lottery. Rather than enjoy a woman’s company for a year, young men and women were to live as the saint they drew, for the period of one year.
However, Roman traditions ran strong and mid February was the time of love and courtship. The story of Saint Valentine’s dying note of affection to Julia soon intertwined with Roman traditions of courtship. From there came the tradition of Valentine’s Day letters of endearment and eventually cards. The first known Valentine’s Day card rests in the British Museum and dates to 1415, sent by the Duke of Orleans to his wife.
In Victorian England, Cupid, son of Venus, goddess of love, naturally became a favorite icon of the holiday. During that same time, the Cadbury family, famous confectioners, introduced Valentine candy boxes. The boxes depicted Victorian favorites such as cupids, lace hearts, and many other common elements found in cards given to loved ones on Valentine’s Day. It is from these early Victorian times that gifts of candy and chocolates became a tradition.
While present-day countries such as America and England traditionally send cards and candies to their mates on Valentine’s Day, other countries enjoy different traditions. Many celebrate on February 14, but in countries such as Japan, it is celebrated twice. In February, Japanese girls send dark chocolates to boys, and then in March the boys send the girls white chocolates. In Vietnam, couples wear matching colors on February 14. Some countries such as India only permit adults to celebrate the holiday. However it is celebrated, however it began, one thing is certain. Valentine’s Day has come to be known as a day for lovers the world over to celebrate simply being in love.
Valentine’s Day Origins. Brief history of Valentine’s Day
Reclaiming St. Valentine. Article on the history behind the holiday by Father Bartley MacPhaidin.
Who Was St. Valentine?. Brief overview of St. Valentine with a list of countries where celebrations Valentine’s Day are common.
University of Kansas Diversity Calendar. Another version of the history of Valentine’s Day and historical information on the original Roman/pagan holiday believed to be its origin.
Valentine’s Celebrations Around the World. High school newspaper article discussing survey results for how other nations celebrate Valentine’s Day.
Victorian Valentines. Evolution of the modern Valentine’s Day card, including photos.
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