Holiday History

By John Copeland

Just in case it slipped your mind, Feb. 14 is Valentine’s Day. 

It is a very popular holiday! According to U.S. florists, 110 million roses, most of them red, will be given to sweethearts across America on Valentine’s Day. We will also exchange about 1 billion, yep, that is a billion with a B, Valentine’s Day cards. Americans will also buy more than 58 million pounds of chocolate, and a lot of that will come boxed in 35 million heart-shaped boxes. 

Have you ever wondered how the middle of February became associated with love and romance? Eight hundred years before the founding of Valentine’s Day, ancient Romans celebrated the raucous festival of Lupercalia in honor of the Roman gods of fertility, Lupercus and Faunus, on the Ides of February, which was February 15th.

One of Lupercalia’s really popular traditions was the “Love Lottery.” On the eve of Lupercalia, all marriage-aged girls would write their names on a slip of parchment and toss it into a big urn. Young men then drew a slip from the urn. The young men would then be paired with the girl whose name was on the slip for the rest of the year. It was not unusual for these couples to fall in love and marry. 

The Love Lottery was popular for centuries, even into early Christian times. In an effort to do away with this pagan practice, Pope Gelasius in 456 AD proclaimed that the urn would now contain the names of Christian saints. Both young men and women would draw a chit from the urn and strive to emulate that saint for the rest of the year. The lottery was quickly abandoned and Lupercalia continued without it.

Not one to give up, Pope Gelasius looked around for a suitable saint to supplant the hedonistic Festival of Lupercalia. He found the appropriate choice in Valentine, an early martyred Christian priest. Thus, the mid-February holiday in commemoration of St. Valentine was established. 

So just who was this Valentine guy? How did Valentine become the saint of love? And why do we still celebrate his holiday? 

The Catholic Church actually recognized eleven St. Valentine’s Days. And there are actually two Valentines who were martyred on February 14th. But, in 1969, the Church removed the feast day of St. Valentine from the Calendar of Saints for the following reason: “Though the memorial of Saint Valentine is ancient, apart from his name, nothing is known of Saint Valentine except that he was buried on the Via Flaminia on February 14th.” 

I know, two, really? The Valentines honored on February 14th are Valentine of Rome and Valentine of Terni. 

Valentine of Rome was a priest martyred on February 14, 269 AD, and buried on the Via Flaminia. Valentine of Terni was a bishop. He was martyred by Emperor Aurelian around 197 AD and also buried on the Via Flaminia. Via Flaminia seems to have been a popular spot for dumping unwanted Valentines. 

But, if we are to believe the legends about St. Valentine, then Valentine of Rome is our guy. He lived during the time of Emperor Claudius II, also called Claudius the Cruel. This is not the Roman Emperor Claudius that most of us know from the miniseries “I, Claudius.” This was a different and very grumpy Claudius.

Our Valentine was a Christian priest and very popular with children. Emperor Claudius is known for his persecution of Christians. Emperor Claudius II had Valentine thrown into prison. 

Valentine spent a year in prison and his youthful followers tossed notes and flowers between the bars of his cell window. This may explain how the tradition of exchanging notes and flowers on Valentine’s Day began. 

Valentine also made friends with his jailer’s blind daughter. In the days before his execution, Valentine prayed for the jailer’s daughter and she miraculously regained her sight. Before his death, Valentine is also said to have written a farewell note to the jailer’s daughter and signed it, with the expression still popular today “From Your Valentine.”

These stories are likely no more than Roman urban myths. But, there is no question that Valentine really existed because archaeologists have unearthed a Roman catacomb and an ancient church dedicated to Saint Valentine. We also know that the Roman tradition, carried over from Lupercalia, of men seeking the affection of women was part of the commemoration of St. Valentine on February 14th. 

It should come as no surprise that by the Middle Ages, St. Valentine had become one of the most popular saints in England and France. On St. Valentine’s Day, young men and women drew names from a bowl to see who their Valentines would be. Sounds very similar to Lupercalia’s Love Lottery. However, instead of pairing up for the year, the young folks would wear the name they picked on their sleeves for one week. This is where the term “to wear your heart on your sleeve” originated. 

In the manuscript collection of the British Library is the first known romantic Valentine’s note, written in 1415, by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt in France. During the years he was imprisoned, Charles penned several “love letters” to his wife in France. 

The first note Charles sent to his wife reads:

“Wilt thou be mine? Dear love, reply

Sweetly consent, or else deny;

Whisper softly, none shall know,

Wilt thou be mine, love? Aye or no?”

So the real truth here is that since ancient times, February has been a month of romance containing vestiges of both Christian and ancient pagan Roman traditions. Though the day has been extremely commercialized, it is still a day on which you can let the one you love know just how you feel.

And you still have time to pick up a card, order a bouquet of flowers or some tasty chocolates for your sweetheart.