A Non-Hallmark History of Valentine’s Day
Alright, I’ll be honest. I’ve never been a big fan of Valentine’s Day. First of all, it’s too close to my birthday. It also doesn’t help that for many Valentine days, I was single. There are few things more annoying than watching everyone celebrate a day for lovers when you don’t have one yourself. I managed the pain by going to the store the next day, and enjoying the chocolates in the half-off bin that, like myself, got left behind on February 14.
Once I found myself a nice fellow and got married, I still didn’t warm up to Valentine’s Day. Something about the whole thing just felt off to me. The over priced flowers, the boxes of chocolate bigger than my head, the aisles and aisles of pink and red cards… I just couldn’t get into it.
Perhaps it was my inner senses tingling. Trying to tell me that, like most things in history, Valentines Day has a much darker side than pretty flowers and cards. So, I finally dug into it. As it turns out, I’m not the only one who’s had a streak of rotten luck on the biggest day for romance.
It all started with a man known as “St. Valentine of Rome.” A lot of his history remains cloudy. Some historians even believe that the “St. Valentine” we have come to love might be multiple saintly figures rolled into one, given all the fragmentary information out there. Be that as it may – here is the gist.
St. Valentine lived in Rome (or thereabouts) in the Third Century AD. At that time, the Roman emperor Claudius II had little use for the newer Christian religion, and he instead worshiped the art of warfare. He loved warfare so much he wanted all his forces committed to it, all the time. He especially hated when they got distracted by their wives and family commitments. Ready to do something about it, he made marriage illegal for soldiers. On paper, it looks like an easy fix, but love conquers all, and many of those soldiers already had a sweetheart. None were ready to trade their lady love for slings and arrows.
Enter the brave and the bold St. Valentine. Ever a preacher of love, he defied Claudius’s law and performed marriage ceremonies for any love birds who needed him. While he was at it, he gave shelter and aid to Christians facing persecution from the Roman Empire. Young lovers and Christian fugitives the countryside over kept him busy for quite some time.
Unfortunately, nothing that good stays secret. Word of Valentine’s activities eventually reached Emperor Claudius. In exchange for Valentine making love and not war, Claudius had him arrested and thrown into prison. While languishing in jail, he made the acquaintance (and some sources say took a fancy to) the jailer’s blind daughter Julia. He said fervent prayers for her healing, which according to some legends, miraculously restored her sight.
A miracle by the church’s standards, but it still wasn’t enough to sway Claudius from his decision to put Valentine to death. So, the doomed saint wrote a farewell to his friend Julia, and signed it – “Your Valentine.” This is often considered the world’s first Valentine’s Day greeting, although written under not so lovable circumstances. Later, Valentine got dragged into a torture chamber where he was beaten, clubbed, and stoned. When none of that killed him, he was beheaded on February 14 and buried near the Via Flaminia.
St. Valentine’s violent martyrdom was honored in the typical Catholic Church fashion – by marking the day of his death as “St. Valentine’s Day.” However, the church didn’t dare put a romantic spin on it. Because the only love connected with February 14 at the time was the Pagan holiday of Lupercalia. It involved a lot of drinking, and a match-making lottery where women put their names into jars, and young men drew the name of the woman that would be his “lover” for the duration of the festival (February 13-15).
In the fifth century, perhaps tired of all the revelry around February 14, Pope Gelasius I tried to expel Lupercalia by combining it with St. Valentine’s Day. At last embracing the love part of the idea, but expelling the drunken revelry and lottery-style hook ups.
The holiday we know today started emerging during the 14th and 15th centuries, with help from the famous writers Chaucer and Shakespeare. Their romantic love stories and poems gave birth to a new type of Valentine’s Day. By the Middle Ages, lovers were exchanging elaborate paper cards (some embroidered with real gold) and flowers on February 14.
The next big development came a few centuries later. Like the Industrial Revolution shaped so many things, it also transformed the day of St. Valentine. Paper cards became factory-made and more readily available. The Hallmark Company of Kansas City, Missouri really blew up Valentine’s Day in 1913. They started big business in mass producing valentine’s greetings, candies, cute cuddly stuffed animals, and all other things valentines. February 14 has been aisles of pink and red at the grocery store ever since.
This year, I will at last be a willing participant in Valentine’s Day for the first time in… well… ever. It’s never been my favorite holiday, but for some reason, knowing the history made me want to get in on it a little. A lot of the legend of St. Valentine has been clouded over with time and mystery. The legend might be just that – a legend. But if any part of it is true, then someone died because he believed that love was worth celebrating. Perhaps I should honor his memory by giving it a try. We’ll see how it goes, but in the meantime, I wish all of you, no matter how you celebrate it – a very happy Valentine’s Day.
“The True Story of St. Valentine of Terni, Italy” – J. McDonald
“Celebrate Valentines Day” – National Geographic for Kids
NPR: “The Dark Origins of Valentine’s Day” (https://www.npr.org/2011/02/14/133693152/the-dark-origins-of-valentines-day)
Wikipedia – “Valentine’s Day” and “St. Valentine”
“The Folklore of World Holidays” – R. Griffin & H. Shurgin
All photos by M.B. Henry. For more flower photos, please visit my photo gallery.