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The stories behind St. Valentine’s Day

An 1961 composite illustrating traditional Saint Valentine’s Day illustration: library of congress

Hearts, cupids, boxed chocolates, and mailboxes stuffed with greeting cards are all signs that we’re approaching Feb. 14 or, more formally, St. Valentine’s Day. Americans will purchase 145 million valentine’s cards this year, the Greeting Card Association estimates, and we can add to that an uncounted number of electronic
greeting cards.

The holiday brings to mind childhood viewings of Charlie Brown’s V-day travails, and probably a mixture of sweet and painful memories of relationships past. It’s anticipated with glee or dread depending on people’s mindsets, but whatever the emotional reception, Valentine’s Day is seldom thought of in its historical con-text, and this is a holiday that has history to spare, though there is no clear answer to the question, “Where did St. Valentine’s Day come from?”

The holiday draws on a mixture of Christian and pre-Christian Roman activity. One tradition holds that mid-February was when the pagan Romans celebrated Lupercalia, a fertility revelry that ended in the matching up of young lovers with the hope for marriage. The ceremony was quite unlike your Valentine’s Day tradition of buying flowers or chocolate and going out to dinner at a nice restaurant. According to, the Lupercalia celebrants sacrificed a goat and a dog, and then they would cut “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.”

The Christian church, which has long posed as dog’s best friend and has opposed the slapping of women with goat skin on general principle, eventually sought to get rid of Lupercalia because it was declared to be un-Christian.

There are several possible relevant individuals who could plausibly be St. Valentine in Roman Catholic history, though the one story that might be most promising relates to a priest who married young couples in secret, defying an imperial order by Emperor Claudius II against marriage for young men, because the ruler thought that single men made better soldiers. Discovery News correspondent Rossella Lorenzi writes, “When the priest of love was eventually arrested, legend has it that he fell deeply in love with his jailer’s daughter. Before his death by beating and decapitation, he signed a farewell note to her: ‘From your Valentine.'”

Eventually, the early church began to celebrate St. Valentine’s feast day in mid-February in an attempt to Christianize a pagan holiday, just like they had so much success Christianizing the pagan predecessor to the Christmas holiday, which is why every year we celebrate the Virgin Mary’s battle with other parents for a talking Justin Bieber doll at Wal-Mart. At the end of the fifth century, Pope Gelasius officially declared Feb. 14 to be St. Valentine’s Day. Case closed.

But others claim that Lupercalia has no connection to modern Valentine’s Day and the celebration of love. Chaucer is sometimes given credit for making that link in a 1382 poem in honor of a royal wedding, mentioning “seynt Volantynys day.” But there is disagreement about whether he could have been referring to a mid-February holiday, because he also refers, in his spelling-challenged way, to “euery brid comyth there” (every bird cometh there) — and it will take a lot more global warming before England fills up with birds in the middle of winter.

The Huffington Post published a history of the holiday a couple years ago, noting a popular belief “thatValentine’s Day grew out of a Middle Ages tradition of celebrating Feb. 14 as the day ‘the birds began to pair.'”

For the past few hundred years, Valentine’s Day has increasingly come to resemble the holiday we know today. The practice of sending valentines — handwritten or mass-produced messages professing love — began in the late 1700s, imported to the United States in the middle of the 1800s by Massachusetts printer Esther Howland, who produced elaborate cards with layers, embossed flowers and lift-up flaps, according to the Greeting Card Association.

Whatever the exact origins of the holiday and its connection to the celebration of love, it certainly grew and evolved over centuries in Western Europe, likely mixing together a number of traditions.

Today, St. Valentine’s Day is popularly celebrated around the world, though mostly in Western countries. Besides the Roman Catholic Church, it is recognized as an official religious holiday in the Anglican, Lutheran and Eastern Orthodox traditions, though the Eastern Orthodox celebrate it during the summer rather than in February.

Alas, it is not a U.S. government holiday, so you still need to go to work and feed the parking meters. A small price to pay for saving the dogs and goats.

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John Zipperer will be celebrating his anniversary on Valentine’s Day. E-mail: [email protected]