It might be widely recognised as the most romantic day of the year, but Valentine’s Day wasn’t always the gift-giving celebration of love that we all know and love. In fact, if any of the legends behind St. Valentine are true, the history of Valentine’s Day is marked by tragedy.
The Origins of St. Valentine
The beginnings of Valentine’s Day and its patron saint are shrouded in mystery. While there are a number of different stories depicting the origin of this now largely commercialised holiday, there is a lot of speculation over what’s true and what’s merely a myth.
The Catholic Church actually recognises multiple saints by the name of Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom were martyred. According to one legend, Valentine was a priest serving under the rule of Emperor Claudius II in third century Rome, when it was declared that soldiers were not allowed to marry, as single men made better soldiers than ones with families. It’s believed Valentine disagreed with this decree and continued to marry young couples in secret. When it was discovered what he was doing, Claudius sentenced him to death.
Although, according to other stories, Valentine was thrown in a dungeon awaiting his execution after he was caught helping Christians escape brutal Roman prisons. It’s said that while he was imprisoned, he fell in love with the jailor’s daughter, who visited him during his confinement. Allegedly, he wrote a love note to her before he was due to be killed and signed it “From Your Valentine”.
While there are a lot of conflicting stories over who St. Valentine actually was, the one thing that remains consistent in all of the stories is that he was a sympathetic, heroic, and a romantic religious figure.
The Rise of Valentine’s Day
There is speculation that Valentine’s Day is celebrated on February 14 to mark the death of St. Valentine, however, it’s more widely believed that the Christian church chose that date in an attempt to Christianise the pagan celebration of Lupercalia. Originally a fertility festival dedicated to the Roman god of agriculture, Faunus, and the Roman founders Romulus and Remus.
To celebrate the festival, an order of Roman priests, known as the Luperci, would gather outside the cave where the founders of Rome were believed to have been cared for by a she-wolf, commonly referred to as lupa. As part of the ritual involved in the celebrations, they would sacrifice a goat for fertility and a dog, for purification. The goat’s hide would then be cut in strips that were dipped in the sacrificial blood. Returning to the streets of Rome, the priests would gently slap both women and the crop fields with the strips of goat hide. The women welcomed the bloody slaps, as they thought it would improve their fertility over the next year.
The festivities would continue well into the afternoon and night, as Roman women placed their names in a large urn for the bachelors of the city to choose from. The women whose name they pulled out of the urn would become their partner for the next year, which often resulted in marriage.
When Christianity first rose to popularity, Lupercalia remained popular, however, by the end of the 5th century Pope Gelasius outlawed the holiday, deeming it “un-Christian” and declared February 14 to be Valentine’s Day instead.
It’s unclear when Valentine’s Day became a day for romance, although mid February does mark the beginning of birds’ mating season, which could have helped cement the celebration’s romantic connotations.
Jump forward to the Middle Ages and Valentine’s notes started to appear (some time after 1400). Charles, Duke of Orleans, wrote the oldest known Valentine in 1415 while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. This poem is now part of a manuscript collection that’s kept in the British Library.
Modern Representations of Valentine’s Day
Today, Valentine’s Day requires no introduction. As the second biggest holiday in terms of card purchases, and celebrated across the globe, Valentine’s Day is a day for buying chocolates and flowers and sending loved ones ‘Valentines’. This is a tradition that started in the 17th century both in Britain and America and has since spread to France, Australia, Canada and countless other countries.
If you’re planning a romantic celebration for your loved one come February 14, why not get a custom-made flag or some romantically-themed bunting from Tudor House? It’s bound to add the finishing touches to any romantic dinner or party.