By Lia Blanchard
So Valentine was a saint… but how did his day on the church calendar come to be an international day of romance?
Before we explore that, it must be noted that there were several Saint Valentines… and three of them have their Saint’s day in February. Popular history tells us that the most likely candidate for the holiday is Roman a priest imprisoned in the third century, although there is much variation as to why he was in prison. The story says that the priest fell in love with the jailer’s daughter, and wrote her a letter before his death, signing it “from your Valentine.” The story became a well-known tale of devotion.
It is possible the romantic atmosphere came as much from the man as from the timing. Ancient Romans celebrated a fertility festival called Lupercalia in mid-February, which culminated in a blind pairing of the community’s single men and women. The couple would pair up for the year, naturally resulting in many marriages. The observation of Lupercalia had been outlawed by Saint Valentine’s time, although a few of the lower class folks still observed its traditions. The Catholic Church quite possibly chose to give the Saint with a reputation for romance a day near Lupercalia time so the “rabble” would have a more Christian example to follow.
Or the church wanted to replace the February 14 festival honoring Juno the goddess of marriage.
Or it’s all a coincidence. The truth is that the exact origin of the romantic nature of the holiday is lost to history. And guess what? Saint Valentine isn’t even a saint anymore. The Catholic Church dropped Saint Valentine from the calendar of official saint’s feasts in 1969.
From Medieval to Modern History
The earliest durable connection between romance and Saint Valentine is a Chaucer poem from the 14th century. Chaucer is describing the romantic antics of several birds on “Saint Valentine’s Day, when every fowl comes there his mate to take,” indicating that the notion of it being a day of romance and love was already understood by his audience.
By the mid 1600’s, handwritten cards and notes and small tokens of affection were commonly exchanged between lovers of all social classes. As printing technology advanced, the pre-printed cards became available, and were in common usage by 1900.
Today, Valentine’s Day is the second-largest greeting card holiday, with about a billion cards sent worldwide – 85% by women.
Is it romantic, really?
Many folks feel that Valentine’s Day was manufactured by greeting card companies and flower nurseries. I would argue that since people have been observing the day for hundreds of years, that probably isn’t true, although I can understand the sentiment.
Next: Valentine’s Day for everyone – not just couples