The Dark (And Surprisingly Convoluted) Origins Of Valentine's Day



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In the 21st century, some view Valentine's Day as a holiday to celebrate love in all its forms (although primarily romantic love), while others deride it as an overly commercialized holiday that is focused more on boosting the sales of flowers, candy, greeting cards, and jewelry than it is on celebrating love

When the holiday rose to prominence in the Middle Ages, it was definitely focused on the ideas of love and romance. It was also dedicated to honoring the saint for which the holiday was named - a 3rd century martyr (or martyrs) named Valentinus (Valentine), the patron saint of (among other things) lovers, engaged people, and happily married couples.

The thing is, there is little historical evidence that Valentinus had any interest in love or romance. In fact, the history surrounding the man (or men - it is unclear whether the martyred Saint Valentine was one person or two) is very dark, as according to legend he was imprisoned and then beheaded by order of Emperor Claudius II, most likely because he attempted to convert pagans to Christianity. A couple hundred years later, Pope Gelasius I declared February 14 - the day that Valentinus was executed - to be the martyr's saint's day.

So how did we get from those dark origins to the traditions surrounding the current Valentine's Day? Hopefully, this article will provide some answers.

Photo: Dave / Flickr / CC-BY-ND 2.0

  • Valentine's Day May Be Named For Two (Or Possibly Three) Men Who Were Executed In The 3rd Century CE

    The origins of Valentine's Day are a bit murky, as the historical records are incomplete and sometimes contradictory. 

    There are at least three Saint Valentines listed under the date of February 14 in the early martyrologies. All of them lived in the 3rd century CE; one was a priest who resided in Rome, and another was a bishop in Interamna (now Terni). There is little known about the third Saint Valentine, other than he reportedly was killed along with 24 soldiers in Africa.

  • One Valentine Legend Dates Back To Ancient Rome, When A Priest Cured A Pagan's Blindness
    Photo: Jacopo Bassano (Jacopo da Ponte) / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    One Valentine Legend Dates Back To Ancient Rome, When A Priest Cured A Pagan's Blindness

    One legend states that a Roman priest named Valentinus was arrested and placed under the custody of an aristocrat named Asterius. During his confinement, the priest would talk to Asterius about how Christ led pagans out of darkness and into the light of salvation. Asterius promised that he and his family would convert to Christianity if the priest could cure his daughter of her blindness.

    The legend claims that after the priest put his hands over the girl's eyes and recited, “Lord Jesus Christ, enlighten your handmaid, because you are God, the True Light," she could see. With his daughter cured, Asterius kept his part of the bargain, and he and the rest of his family were baptized. 

    When Emperor Gothicus (AKA Claudius II) learned of this, he ordered the execution of the priest, Asterius, and Asterius's entire family. After Valentinus was beheaded, a woman made off with his body and had it buried on the Via Flaminia.

  • Another Legend Suggests Valentinus Was Executed For Converting Pagans To Christianity
    Photo: Giovanni Battista de' Cavalieri / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Another Legend Suggests Valentinus Was Executed For Converting Pagans To Christianity

    There is another legend about Valentinus that follows many of the same beats as the first. In this version, instead of a priest, Valentinus is a bishop in the Italian province of Umbria. He, too, allegedly convinced a man to convert to Christianity after curing the man's son of some affliction, and he, too, was executed for angering the emperor. He was then buried on Via Flaminia.

    A group of Belgian monks known as Bollandists spent three centuries (from the early 1600s to 1940) researching the lives of saints. They believed that, because of the similarities in the stories about the Roman priest Valentine and the Bishop Valentine, it is very possible that they were the same man, not two separate individuals.

  • Still Another Legend Claims Valentinus Disobeyed The Emperor By Performing Marriages For Soldiers

    Another tale suggests the priest Valentinus was executed not because he attempted to convert Romans to Christianity, but because he disobeyed a law concerning marriage.

    Emperor Claudius II was convinced that single men made better soldiers than those who had wives and families. So he outlawed marriage for young men. But the priest continued to marry couples, defying the law. As a result, the emperor ordered the priest's execution.

  • While Imprisoned, Valentinus May Have Sent The First 'Valentine' Letter
    Photo: Wellcome Images / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 4.0

    While Imprisoned, Valentinus May Have Sent The First 'Valentine' Letter

    In yet another variation on the legend of Valentinus, we are told he was executed because of his attempts to help Christians escape from Roman prisons, where they were often tortured. 

    In this story, the imprisoned Valentinus falls in love with a girl - possibly the daughter of his jailer - who comes to visit him. He sends her a love letter signed  “from your Valentine.” 

  • Valentine's Day May Have Been Created As a Christian Replacement For The Pagan Holiday Of Lupercalia
    Photo: Rijksmuseum / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Valentine's Day May Have Been Created As a Christian Replacement For The Pagan Holiday Of Lupercalia

    The pagan Feast of Lupercalia was celebrated from February 13 through 15. During the feast, Roman men would sacrifice a goat and a dog and then whip pregnant women with the skins of these animals. 

    The belief was that, by doing so, the woman would give birth to a healthy child. The celebration also included a lottery where a man would draw a woman's name out of a jar and the two would then couple for the remainder of the feast - or longer, if the match was successful.

    Some reports claim that in the year 467 Pope Hilary demanded that Emperor Anthemius abolish the festival. However, other historical records state that the Pope simply warned the emperor against tolerating heresies, and the festival continued to be held all through that emperor's reign.

    Then in 496, Pope Gelasius I denounced the Festival of Lupercalia as un-Christian and declared February 14th to be St. Valentine's Day in honor of the 3rd century martyr(s). However, it would be hundreds of years before February 14th would become a holiday that celebrated love and romance.