Valentine’s Day is one of the most lucrative days of the year for the greeting card industry and as February 14th approaches millions of dollars will be spent as dutiful lovers, spouses and admirers find that special card or gift that reveals their love to their beloved. So where does this holiday get it’s name and what is it’s history? The historic roots of Valentine’s Day are surprising, and interestingly enough can be traced back to the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia. Lupercalia was a fertility celebration that was enjoyed annually by the ancients of the Roman empire on February 15th.
It was in 496 A.D. that a Pope by the name of Gelasius recast this pagan festival as a Christian feast day and renamed it Saint Valentine’s Day. It had become customary as Christianity came to dominance in Europe that pagan holidays were often recast and changed to reflect Christian values. Celebrations such as Lupercalia were frequently renamed for early Christian martyrs and the festivals became feast days instead. It was in accordance with this tradition that the Pope renamed Lupercalia for Saint Valentine.
But who is this mysterious saint and why has the honoring of love and romance become synonymous with his name?
Most scholars believe that the St. Valentine whose name the holiday bears was a priest in Rome. It is thought that the priest attracted the disfavor of Roman emperor Claudius II around 270 and that is where his fame and his trouble began.
The Legenda Aurea, a collection of stories recounting the lives of the saints, which was compiled around the year 1260 and was a medieval best seller, contains several entries about a Saint Valentine of Claudius II’s reign.
According to the Legenda Aurea, St Valentine was persecuted as a Christian and interrogated by Roman Emperor Claudius II in person. Claudius was very impressed by Valentine and had a discussion with him, attempting to get him to convert to Roman paganism in order to save his life. Valentine refused and tried to convert Claudius to Christianity instead and because of this, he was convicted and scheduled for execution.
The legend goes that sometime before his execution, he is reported to have performed a miracle by healing the blind daughter of his jailer. The story goes that on the evening before Valentine was to be executed on February 13th he wrote the first “valentine” himself. He addressed it to the young girl identified as “his beloved the jailer’s daughter” and it was a note that read “From your Valentine.” On February 14, 270 AD, Valentine was executed and this is a well documented fact.
It was early in the history of the Saint Valentine’s Feast Day that it became linked with a custom that involved young Romans offering women they admired, and wished to court, handwritten greetings of affection on February 14. This is presumably how the greeting cards acquired Saint Valentine’s name and by the Middle Ages, Valentine was one of the most popular saints in England and France.
The custom of the Valentine’s Day card spread with Christianity, and the holiday is now celebrated all over the world. One of the earliest cards that museums have on display was sent in 1415 AD by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was a prisoner in the Tower of London. The card is now show cased in the British Museum.
The existence of Saint Valentine can never be denied because archaeologists have unearthed a Roman catacomb and an ancient church dedicated to him. In 1836, relics that were exhumed from the catacomb were identified as Saint Valentine’s remains and placed in a casket. The Saint’s casket has subsequently been transported to the Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church in Dublin, Ireland where it still resides today. Many tourists continue to visit Saint Valentine’s shrine on the day dubbed in his honor and the casket is still carried in solemn procession to the high altar for a special Mass dedicated to young people and all those in love.