Valentine’s Day occurs every February 14. Across the United States and in other places around the world, candy, flowers and gifts are exchanged between loved ones, all in the name of St. Valentine. But who is this mysterious saint and where did these traditions come from? Find out about the meaning and history of Valentine’s Day, from the ancient Roman ritual of Lupercalia that welcomed spring to the card-giving customs of Victorian England.
The Legend of St. Valentine
Where did Valentine’s Day originate from? The history of the holiday—and the story of its patron saint—is shrouded in mystery. We do know that February has long been celebrated as a month of romance, and that St. Valentine’s Day, as we know it today, contains vestiges of both Christian and ancient Roman tradition. But who was Saint Valentine, and how did he become associated with this ancient rite?
The Catholic Church recognizes at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom were martyred. One legend contends that Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome.
When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death. Still others insist that it was Saint Valentine of Terni, a bishop, who was the true namesake of the holiday. He, too, was beheaded by Claudius II outside Rome.
Other stories suggest that Valentine may have been killed for attempting to help Christians escape harsh Roman prisons, where they were often beaten and tortured. According to one legend, an imprisoned Valentine actually sent the first “valentine” greeting himself after he fell in love with a young girl—possibly his jailor’s daughter—who visited him during his confinement. Before his death, it is alleged that he wrote her a letter signed “From your Valentine,” an expression that is still in use today. Although the truth behind the Valentine legends is murky, the stories all emphasize his appeal as a sympathetic, heroic and—most importantly—romantic figure. By the Middle Ages, perhaps thanks to this reputation, Valentine would become one of the most popular saints in England and France.
Origins of Valentine’s Day: A Pagan Festival in February
While some believe that Valentine’s Day is celebrated in the middle of February to commemorate the anniversary of Valentine’s death or burial—which probably occurred around A.D. 270—others claim that the Christian church may have decided to place St. Valentine’s feast day in the middle of February in an effort to “Christianize” the pagan celebration of Lupercalia. Celebrated at the ides of February, or February 15, Lupercalia was a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, as well as to the Roman founders Romulus and Remus.
To begin the festival, members of the Luperci, an order of Roman priests, would gather at a sacred cave where the infants Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were believed to have been cared for by a she-wolf or lupa. The priests would sacrifice a goat, for fertility, and a dog, for purification. They would then strip the goat’s hide into strips, dip them into the sacrificial blood and take to the streets, gently slapping both women and crop fields with the goat hide.
Far from being fearful, Roman women welcomed the touch of the hides because it was believed to make them more fertile in the coming year. Later in the day, according to legend, all the young women in the city would place their names in a big urn. The city’s bachelors would each choose a name and become paired for the year with his chosen woman. These matches often ended in marriage.
Valentine’s Day Meaning: A Day of Romance and Love
Lupercalia survived the initial rise of Christianity but was outlawed—as it was deemed “un-Christian”—at the end of the 5th century, when Pope Gelasius declared February 14 St. Valentine’s Day. It was not until much later, however, that the day became definitively associated with love. During the Middle Ages, it was commonly believed in France and England that February 14 was the beginning of birds’ mating season, which added to the idea that the middle of Valentine’s Day should be a day for romance. The English poet Geoffrey Chaucer was the first to record St. Valentine’s Day as a day of romantic celebration in his 1375 poem “Parliament of Foules,” writing, ““For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day / Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.”
Valentine greetings were popular as far back as the Middle Ages, though written Valentine’s didn’t begin to appear until after 1400. The oldest known valentine still in existence today was a poem 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. (The greeting is now part of the manuscript collection of the British Library in London, England.) Several years later, it is believed that King Henry V hired a writer named John Lydgate to compose a valentine note to Catherine of Valois.
Who Is Cupid?
Cupid is often portrayed on Valentine’s Day cards as a naked cherub launching arrows of love at unsuspecting lovers. But the Roman God Cupid has his roots in Greek mythology as the Greek god of love, Eros. Accounts of his birth vary; some say he is the son of Nyx and Erebus; others, of Aphrodite and Ares; still others suggest he is the son of Iris and Zephyrus or even Aphrodite and Zeus (who would have been both his father and grandfather).
According to the Greek Archaic poets, Eros was a handsome immortal played with the emotions of Gods and men, using golden arrows to incite love and leaden ones to sow aversion. It wasn’t until the Hellenistic period that he began to be portrayed as the mischievous, chubby child he’d become on Valentine’s Day cards.
The mention of Cupid typically conjures up images of a cherubic infant wielding a bow and arrow, but this wasn’t always the case. Long before the Romans adopted and renamed him—and way before his association with Valentine’s Day—Cupid was known to the Greeks as Eros, the handsome god of love.
Cupid and Greek Mythology
One of the first authors to mention Eros (circa 700 B.C.) was Hesiod, who described him in “Theogony” as one of the primeval cosmogonic deities born of the world egg. But later accounts of the lineage of Eros vary, describing him as the son of Nyx and Erebus; or Aphrodite and Ares; or Iris and Zephyrus; or even Aphrodite and Zeus—who would have been both his father and grandfather.
Armed with a bow and a quiver filled with both golden arrows to arouse desire and leaden arrows to ignite aversion, Eros struck at the hearts of gods and mortals and played with their emotions. In one story from ancient Greek mythology, which was later retold by Roman authors, Cupid (Eros) shot a golden arrow at Apollo, who fell madly in love with the nymph Daphne, but then launched a leaden arrow at Daphne so she would be repulsed by him.
Cupid and Psyche
In another allegory, Cupid’s mother, Venus (Aphrodite), became so jealous of the beautiful mortal Psyche that she told her son to induce Psyche to fall in love with a monster. Instead, Cupid became so enamored with Psyche that he married her—with the condition that she could never see his face. Eventually, Psyche’s curiosity got the better of her and she stole a glance, causing Cupid to flee in anger. After roaming the known world in search of her lover, Psyche was eventually reunited with Cupid and granted the gift of immortality.
In the poetry of the Archaic period, Eros was represented as a studly immortal who was irresistible to both man and gods. But by the Hellenistic period, he was increasingly portrayed as a playful, mischievous child. Because of his associations with love, 19th-century Victorians—credited with popularizing Valentine’s Day and giving the holiday its romantic spin—began depicting this cherubic version of Cupid on Valentine’s Day cards in a trend that has persisted until this day.