Our national holiday celebrating love hasn’t always been all candy hearts and flowers. How did a day that was once described as “a rural masculine cult involving the sacrifice of goats and dogs” (SmithsonianMag.com) turn into a hallmark holiday?
What is the actual history of Valentine’s day? Truth be told, no one actually knows. While there are endless anecdotes, we’ve gathered the most common origin stories for you to decide. Which one do you think is the real deal? Comment below to let us know what you think!
The Roman “Romantics”: Lupercalia (NYtimes.com)
“The most common explanation for how Valentine’s Day came to be is the ancient festival of Lupercalia, a raucous, wine-fueled fertility rite in which Roman men and women paired off. Lupercalia was celebrated for centuries in the middle of February and eventually, as the Roman Empire became less pagan and more Christian, was transformed into a celebration honoring St. Valentine.
‘It was a little more of a drunken revel, but the Christians put clothes back on it,’ [Yale History, Noel Lenski] said. ‘That didn’t stop it from being a day of fertility and love.’”
Two Many Saints: Valentine of Terni and Valentine of Rome (NationalGeographic.com)
“By some estimations there are over 10,800 saints, of which there are more than 30 Valentines and even a few Valentinas. Two Valentines stand out as likely candidates for the namesake saint, but neither dealt with matters of the heart. The two Valentines share many similarities, leading some researchers to wonder whether they were the same man. Both Valentines were martyrs, put to death by the Roman Emperor Claudius in the third century. Both men were also said to have died on February 14, although years apart.
The first Valentine was a priest who was arrested during the Roman persecutions of Christians. When brought before the emperor, Valentine refused to renounce his faith and as punishment was placed under house arrest. The head of the house holding Valentine challenged the priest to show the true power of God. Soon, Valentine restored sight to a young blind girl and the whole house converted. Once word of the miracle and conversion reached the Emperor, Valentine was executed.
The second priest, the Bishop Valentine of Terni, was also a miracle worker. Known for his ability to heal physical disabilities, a scholar sent for the bishop to heal his only son, who could not speak or straighten his body. After a night of prayer, the bishop healed the boy and the family, along with visiting scholars, convert to Christianity. Shortly after the bishop was arrested for his miracles and, after refusing to convert to paganism, beheaded.”
The Poetry of Love: Chaucer (NYtimes.com) and Shakespeare (SmithsonianMag.com)
Poets Geoffrey Chaucer and Williams Shakespeare may be the source for popularizing our current romantic notions on this day.
“Chaucer may have connected St. Valentine to romance because it was convenient: His saint’s day, on Feb. 14, took place at a time when Britons in the 14th century thought spring began, with birds starting to mate and plants beginning to bloom, Mr. Oruch wrote.
From Chaucer’s perspective, an added perk was that Europeans at the time thought “Valentine” was a nice-sounding name. Other saints who were celebrated in mid-February had names with less poetic appeal: St. Scholastica, St. Austrebertha, St. Eulalia and St. Eormenhild.”
“English audiences embraced the idea of February mating. Shakespeare’s lovestruck Ophelia spoke of herself as Hamlet’s Valentine.(Shakespeare-navigators.com)”
A Day of Love is Born (historyextra.com)
“In 15th-century France, 14 February became an annual feast day celebrating romantic love. Lavish banquets with singing and dancing were held to mark the occasion. It was also a 15th-century Frenchman who committed the earliest surviving Valentine’s greeting to paper. While imprisoned in the Tower of London following the 1415 battle of Agincourt, the Duke of Orleans wrote to his wife:
Je suis desja d’amour tanné
Ma tres doulce Valentinée
This translates roughly as, “I am already sick of love, my very gentle Valentine”. This remarkable letter survives in the manuscript collections of the British Library, which also holds the oldest surviving Valentine’s letter in the English language. This dates from 1477 and was sent by one Margery Brews to her fiancé John Paston. In this letter Margery describes John as her “right well-beloved Valentine”
No matter the origins, there’s no denying Valentine's Day is a here to stay. Whether you celebrate with your partner, best friends, or not at all we can all use a day to put forth a little more love.
Comment below and let us know which origin story you think is the most likely?