Every year, all over the world, during February 14th, sweets, flowers and gifts are exchanged between lovers in the name of Valentine’s Day. However, the origin of Valentine’s Day goes beyond the exchange of gifts. Discover the history of this famous holiday, from ancient rituals to the customs of Victorian England.

The Legend of Valentine’s Day

It is obvious that February is known as a month associated with love. But to this day, the origin of Valentine’s Day and the story of its patron saint remains mysterious. The vestiges of Christian traditions and the ancient Roman tradition are recognized in the history of Valentine’s Day. There are about 3 martyrs who are saints called Valentine or Valentinus in the Catholic Church. A legend claims that Valentine was a priest who served in Rome in the 3rd century. Marriage of young men was forbidden at that time because Emperor Claudius II declared it. He noticed that single men were the best soldiers rather than those with wives. Valentin realized how unfair the decree was and violated Claudius’ laws. In spite of the decree, Valentin continued to perform marriages in secret, but was later discovered and executed.

Other legends describe Valentine as a hero who was killed for trying to help abused Christians escape from Roman prisons. Another legend says that Valentine fell in love with a young girl while he was in prison. Before he died, he wrote a letter to the girl and signed it “from your Valentine”. This expression is still commonly used to this day. One thing that all these legends have in common is Valentine’s character as a compassionate, courageous and loving person.

A pagan feast in February

While some believe that Valentine’s Day is celebrated in mid-February to commemorate the anniversary of his death, others claim that the Christian Church may have decided to place Valentine’s Day in mid-February in order to “Christianize” the pagan celebration of Lupercalia. Celebrated at the ides of February or the 15th of February, 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 in a sacred cave where the children Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, would be taken in by a she-wolf or lupa. The priests sacrificed a goat for fertility and a dog for purification. They then separated the goat skin into strips, dipped it in the blood of the sacrifice and went down into the streets, gently beating the women and fields with the goat skin. Far from being frightened, the Roman women welcomed the touch of the skins, as it was thought they would be more fertile next year. Later in the day, according to legend, all the young women of the city would place their names in a large urn. The town’s bachelors would each choose a name and would be paired for the year with their chosen wife. These matches often end in marriage.

A day of romance

The Lupercalia survived the initial rise of Christianity, but were declared outlawed at the end of the 5th century, when Pope Gelasius proclaimed February 14 Valentine’s Day. It was only much later that the day became definitively associated with love. In the Middle Ages, it was generally thought in France and England that February 14th marked the beginning of the breeding season for birds, adding to the idea that the middle of Valentine’s Day should be a day of romance.

Valentine’s Day greetings were popular as early as the Middle Ages. The earliest known Valentine’s Day that still exists today is a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt.

Typical Valentine’s Day greetings

Valentine’s Day is widely celebrated around the world. For example, the celebration of Valentine’s Day in Great Britain began during the 17th century. The exchange of handwritten notes and meaningful gifts between lovers and friends became familiar in the mid-18th century. These written letters were later replaced by printed cards due to advances in technology. During these periods, the direct declaration of one’s feelings was discouraged. People then opted for cards to express their feelings. Today, Valentine’s Day is one of the biggest holidays outside of Christmas. Approximately 145 million Valentine’s Day cards, which are shared among lovers, are purchased each year.