In various parts of the world, February 14th means the arrival of a special holiday – Valentine’s Day. In the United States, Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, France, and Australia, red hearts appear on cards, roses spring up in florists’ shops, and heart-shaped cookies and cakes adorn bakers’ windows. Walls are decorated with shiny hearts and chubby cherubs, while greeting cards are filled with cute cupids and red roses. And just like at Christmastime, human hearts beat faster as people envision the surprise arrival of candies, cards, and flowers on their doorstep or in their mailbox. It is a day of love and secret valentines.
But when did we start celebrating Valentine’s Day? And why? Do you believe it actually involves a priest, a Greek God, and a duke, plus goats, dogs, and birds? Well, it’s true, so let’s dive into the past and uncover the hidden history behind this love-filled holiday.
First, we must go back many, many centuries – to the third century in fact – to the thriving city of Rome, the bustling center of Italy and the heart of Catholicism. The country is ruled by a Roman Emperor named Claudius II. Claudius is a strict ruler who does not allow disobedience. He makes a law that states that unmarried men must fight in his wars because they make better soldiers – they are free of wives and children and they fight fiercely. He strongly believes that married soldiers, on the other hand, are lackluster fighters because they are constantly worried about losing their lives and never returning to their wives and children.
Also at this time, there is a clergyman – a priest or a bishop – in Italy named Valentine or Valentinus, who travels around Italy preaching the Catholic faith. At one point, he is imprisoned because of his preaching. Valentine is brought before Judge Asterius and the judge dares him to prove his faith. Judge Asterius orders Valentine to heal his blind daughter. Valentine prays and then puts his hands on the daughter. Immediately, the daughter’s eyesight returns. The judge is so grateful to Valentine that he releases him from prison, as well as all the other inmates in his city.
Valentine continues on his travels and learns about Emperor Claudius’ laws regarding single men being sent into battle. He thinks this law is unfair, so he secretly performs wedding ceremonies for single men and their sweethearts, thus going around Claudius’ rules.
Valentine eventually meets Emperor Claudius, who likes him at first, but when the emperor learns that Valentine is performing secret wedding ceremonies, he becomes enraged. And when Valentine tries to convert him to Catholicism, he orders that Valentine be thrown into prison. He orders Valentine to give up his faith, but Valentine does not do so. Some stories state that while Valentine is in prison, he writes a letter to Judge Asterius’ now-healed daughter and signs it, “From Your Valentine.”
Unfortunately, Valentine’s kind acts and constant preaching anger Emperor Claudius and he orders Valentine to be killed on February 14th. By the following century, Valentine is one of the most celebrated saints in France and England.
In the 5th century, a pope named Gelasius I became increasingly worried about the pagans – or non-Catholics – and their strange ceremonies. These pagans did not believe in one God, but rather fairies, gods, goddesses, and goblins. The pope decides that the pagan celebrations need to be banished and replaced with a Catholic celebration instead. So, he orders that the pagan holiday of Lupercalia – held every year on February 15th – will now be the feast day of St. Valentine and celebrated on February 14th.
So, what is Lupercalia? Lupercalia is a pagan – or non-religious – holiday honoring Faunus, the god of agriculture and the founders of Rome, named Remus and Romulus.
During Lupercalia every year, a group of religious men used to gather in a secret cave in Rome where they believed that the infants Remus and Romulus were raised by a she-wolf or “lupa.” The men would offer a goat and a dog as a sacrifice to the god Faunus. They would then make strips out of the animals’ hides, dip them in fluid, and walk around town touching women and fields with the wet hides! I am sure you and I would find this practice very strange today, but in those days, women liked to be touched by these hides as they believed it would bring them healthy babies and a bountiful harvest. Later in the day on Lupercalia, single women would write their names on a piece of paper and put the paper into a large urn or container. Young bachelors would pick a woman’s name out of the urn and live with that woman for a year. I wonder if this is where blind dating got its start?!
Later, during the Middle Ages in France and England, it was believed that birds started their mating season in mid-February, around the feast day of St. Valentine. These mating birds and St. Valentine were mentioned in a 1375 poem by English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, who wrote: “For this was Seynt Valentine’s Day/When every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.”
And just like Queen Victoria and Prince Albert made Christmas trees in homes a popular holiday tradition, another noble couple made love letters a St. Valentine’s Day tradition. In 1415, Charles, the French Duke of Orleans, fought in the Battle of Agincourt against King Henry V of England. The French lost the battle and the duke was captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London, and other British castles, for the next 25 years. While in prison, he wrote a poem to his wife called “A Farewell to love,” thinking he would never be released nor see her again. He called her, “My very gentle Valentine.” His poem is now considered the oldest valentine in existence.
So, now we know about the priest and the pope who started St. Valentine’s Day and the noble who wrote a historic valentine. But how did a chubby little cupid make it into our Valentine’s Day celebrations? Well, in Greek history there is a handsome god of love named Eros, who shoots golden arrows into people to inspire love or stop others from doing evil acts. But at some point in history, sometime after the death of Alexander the Great and Queen Cleopatra, images of Eros changed from a handsome god to a chubby cherub. Eros remains the same to this day – possibly because a cheery cherub is less threatening as a symbol of love than a muscled man with arrows!
So, little by little, through the centuries, mid-February has become the time of year to celebrate love. By the 17th century, Valentine’s Day had become quite popular. And in the 18th century, people started exchanging small tokens of love, like candy, flowers, and handwritten notes. Then, in the early 1900’s, Valentine’s Day cards arrived in stores due to the popularity of the printing press. People found it easier to select a preprinted card with a Valentine’s greeting than writing their personal feelings in a handwritten letter. Today, Valentine’s Day is the second largest card-sending holiday, behind Christmas, with approximately 145 million cards sent every year.
Couples still give each other boxes of chocolate, bouquets of flowers, and Valentine’s Day cards. Children create handmade cards – or purchase cards – and give them to their classmates at school. Sometimes they hold celebrations with tasty treats like cookies, cupcakes, and punch.
In the United States, we also enjoy a popular candy called “Sweethearts.” They are tiny, heart-shaped candies with words etched on them like “Be Mine,” “Kiss Me,” or “Miss You.” They come in different colors like pink, yellow, blue, and green. And the romantic expressions on the hearts change through the years – some sayings are kept and some are abandoned. Since the language of young love is always changing, so the sayings on the hearts change, too. Today, the hearts have expressions like “LOL” stamped on them.
The Sweethearts’ candy maker produces over 100,000 pounds (or 45 kilograms) of candy hearts every day. That’s much heavier than a hippo, an elephant, or a Tyrannosaurus Rex – and almost as heavy as the space shuttle! And over 8 billion hearts are made every year.
So, what do you think of Lupercalia and Valentine’s Day? Do you celebrate Valentine’s Day where you live? What do you like most about Valentine’s Day? Do you hold celebrations at home, school, or church and, if so, what do you do? Do you have a favorite treat on Valentine’s Day?