The Mysterious Beginnings of Valentine's Day

Uncover the romantic theories behind the origin of Valentine's Day.

Valentine's Day, History

Valentine's Day is a day of love and kindness towards the people who are most special to oneself. Every February 14th, people all over the world exchange gifts as expressions of their love for another. But how did that tradition begin, and who is this Valentine guy? Let's take a look at what we think are the ancient origin's to the holiday of love, and uncover it's dark history. 

Saint Valentine baptizing St. Lucilla, ca. 1500s

So who was Saint Valentine? Unfortunately it's not certain which Saint Valentine the holiday gets its name from, as the Catholic church has had at least three martyred saints named Valentine or Valentinus. The most common historical saint associated with the holiday is that of Saint Valentine of Rome, a priest in the mid to late 3rd century A.D. who became a martyr after Emperor Claudius II executed him in 269 A.D., supposedly on February 14th. St. Valentine would provide marriages for soldiers even though it was against Roman law for soldiers to marry. According to legend, St. Valentine tried to convert Emperor Claudius II and was quickly jailed. Valentine soon struck up a friendship with his jailer, who had a blind daughter that the jailer thought could be helped by Valentine. Some claim he cured her blindness and fell in love with her, writing his last expression of love before being executed in a letter to the jailer's daughter, signing it "Your Valentine." While this is a great story of the origin of the phrase, there exists little evidence to support it. What we do know is that there are numerous martyrdom stories on February 14th associated to various people named Valentine. It was Saint Valentine of Rome's huge heart and willingness to marry those in love that ignited the connection of love to the holiday we know today. 

Lupercalia Festival, ca. 1635

While the exact origins of many Valentine's Day traditions are unclear, many speculate that the holiday has it's roots in ancient Rome. This is not only because of St. Valentine, but also due to certain ancient Roman and Christian celebrations that have practices or dates in common with today's traditions. The Roman festival of Lupercalia was a pagan celebration honoring Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture (symbolizing growth and rebirth), as well as Romulus and Remus. It was celebrated in the ides of February, around February 15th. Far from the romantic traditions of today, the Luperci order of Roman priests would sacrifice animals such as dogs and goats to the gods, eventually skinning the goat and using the blood covered hides to slap women in the streets. As gruesome as this sounds, women welcomed the practice as they believed it would help with fertility in the following year. According to legend, women would place their names in a basket to be drawn by the men of the village after they were flogged. The men would then be paired with their chosen women for the year, often ending in marriage. Although there is little evidence for a direct connection with Lupercalia to St. Valentine's day, what is known is Lupercalia was outlawed by Pope Gelasius I in the late 5th century when St. Valentine's day was declared on February 14th, in hopes of stifling the pagan traditions of the Romans and replace them with Christian vestiges. This is most likely the reason we celebrate Valentine's Day on this day, rather than as an anniversary of a martyred saint. However, it wasn't until much later that the holiday became permanently associated with love.

Esther Howland Valentine card, "Affection" ca. 1870s

During the Middle Ages around the 14th and 15th century, it was believed in France and England that the birds mating season began on February 14th. This, along with the rise of romantic poetry and literature, helped cement the idea of St. Valentine's Day being a holiday of love. One of the earliest surviving examples of a written Valentine is that of Charles, Duke of Orléans, who wrote it to his wife while being held captive in the Tower of London in the 15th century. In later centuries, it was famous literary contributions by Chaucer and Shakespeare that truly romanticized the holiday, making traditions of writing love letters and gift giving more mainstream throughout Europe. Over time the associations with religious practices became more distant. The early 19th century saw industrialization of paper Valentines in factories as their popularity had skyrocketed. In 1840, the invention of the postage stamp and standardized postage rates caused the tradition of sending Valentine's Day cards to balloon practically overnight. The tradition of sending gifts other than cards soon took hold, and in 1868 the Cadbury chocolate company created the first heart shaped boxex of chocolates called Fancy Boxes. The popularity of both cards and chocolate soon made it's way to the United States in the mid 19th century, and over time all manner of gifts were given on Valentine's Day, including jewelry. Esther Howland (1828-1904) was a prolific designer of intricate handmade Valentine's Day cards, and is known for popularizing them in America in the late 1800s. In 1913, Hallmark Cards began producing valentines cards in Kansas City, Missouri, kick-starting the commercialization of the holiday. This lead to the Valentine's Day that we know and love today.

Valentine's day has evolved over the generations, but the thread of love has always been present, connecting us with the traditions of the past and reminding us to think of the people who are closest to our hearts. Decorating may be a relatively new tradition, but it gives us a way to express our love on the most romantic holiday of the year. Who doesn't love the look on a significant other's face when they come home to a house full of heart garlands, cherub cards and rose ornaments. Decorating is also a great substitute for overly expensive jewelry while still having the same sentiment shine through. Visit our Valentine's Day Decor page for lovely decor pieces that are sure to impress "your Valentine". Don't forget to check out our Jewelry Section and our Gallery page for decorating ideas too!

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