What Is the History of Valentine's Day?

What Is the History of Valentine's Day?

Is Valentine's Day a religious holiday? Valentine's Day is more than roses, candy, and candlelight dinners.

Be my valentine. Kiss me. Miss you.

Whether they’re the words stamped on Sweethearts® candies or the lines of love letters written between star-crossed lovers, these trite phrases are the heart (pardon the pun) of Valentine’s Day every February 14.  But what’s so special about this day?

Obviously, certain companies love the holiday (last pun, I promise). From greeting card companies and candy makers to florists and romantic restaurants across the world, Valentine’s Day is a boon for many industries. One estimate suggests that $17.6 billion is spent annually in the United States alone on Valentine’s Day—that’s approximately $126.03 per person.1

If this holiday is so important to us—to our wallets, at least—where did it come from? When did it originate? Has it always been a day of romance?

A Feast Day

Valentine’s Day is more properly called Saint Valentine’s Day. Its origins lie in being a feast day celebrated by the Christian church as early as the Middle Ages.

Feast days make up the sanctoral calendar that traditional Christian churches use throughout the year. “Sanctoral” simply means holy, sacred, or sanctified. As author Bobby Gross describes it, “the sanctoral calendar ‘sets apart’ a series of days for commemorating important events in the life of Christ or remembering the exemplary lives of saints, both biblical and historical.”2

The purpose of the days that honor saints is simple: “Whether we call them saints or heroes or role models, there is value in focusing our attention on such persons in order to be instructed and inspired.”3 Saint Valentine’s Day is the perfect example.

Saint Valentine

In 496 CE, Pope Gelasius I established the feast day of Saint Valentine. However, it’s unclear to whom Gelasius was referring when he instituted the holiday.

Valentinus, Valens, or Valentinianus (in English, each name translates to Valentine) were common names in Roman times.4 And because ancient records are scant and often incomplete, there are several men named Valentine for whom the feast day could have been established.

Three options stand out.

First, there was a man named Valentine who, according to church tradition, was martyred in the Roman province of Africa. Nothing else is known about him.

Second, there was a more likely candidate also named Valentine who became bishop of Interamna (a province in central Italy) in about 197 CE. According to church tradition, he was martyred during the persecution of Roman Emperor Aurelian.

The most likely contender was—you guessed it—another Valentine. This Valentine was a priest in Rome who was martyred in approximately 269 CE. At the time, Christians were undergoing tremendous persecution under the Roman Emperor Claudius II.

A fifth- or sixth-century work entitled Passio Marii et Marthae describes the martyrdom of Valentine of Rome. In this work, which may be more legendary than historical, the priest Valentine is portrayed as healing the daughter of a Roman official and converting his household to Christianity. This enraged the pagan emperor Claudius, who subsequently had Valentine beaten and beheaded on February 14.5

Folklore has asserted different things about Saint Valentine. Legend has it that Valentine performed illegal Christian weddings for Roman soldiers. Roman authorities had outlawed marriage for soldiers because they “believed the married men made poor soldiers because they were more loyal to their wives and children.”6 According to another tale, “Valentine comforted imprisoned Christians by sending them hearts cut out of parchment.”7

It’s unclear if these stories are based in historical fact or are simply later embellishments. But there most certainly was a man named Valentine who gained honor in the church through his heroic sacrifice, the details of which are now lost to history.

A Day for Romance

Throughout the Middle Ages, Saint Valentine’s Day was not very different from the other feast days that the Catholic and Orthodox churches commemorated. These holidays were celebrated in honor of a great saint who died for his or her faith.

Then how did Valentine’s Day become so associated with romantic love?

We can thank Geoffrey Chaucer for that. In the fourteenth century, Chaucer wrote a poem to honor the anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia, in which he described birds mating on Valentine’s Day.

Other poets, such as Shakespeare and John Donne, followed suit. In a time when courtly love and romance were the focus of high culture, these qualities consequently became directly linked with the celebration of Valentine’s Day.8

In Victorian England, the tradition of sending Valentines—handwritten cards with messages of friendship and love—flourished. Greeting card companies then took advantage of the idea. By the twentieth century, gifts of candy, roses, and wedding proposals had become standard fare in England, America, and around the world.9

As of 2012, parents purchase an estimated seventy-two million Valentine’s cards to give to their children.10 About 220,000 wedding proposals take place on February 14 alone.11 And eight billion Sweethearts® candies are manufactured to mark the occasion.12

This year, whether you celebrate the holiday with one you love, lament the over-the-top quality it has taken on, or consider February 14 to be nothing more than Singles Awareness Day, we would all do well to remember what the day initially stood for.

True love, like that of Saint Valentine’s, requires sacrifice. In the words of Jesus, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”13

  1. Kathy Grannis, “Americans to Pull Out All the Stops This Valentine’s Day,” National Retail Federation, February 1, 2012, http://www.nrf.com/modules.php?name=News&op=viewlive&sp_id=1304.
  2. Bobby Ross, Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 29.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Henry Ansgar Kelly, Chaucer and the Cult of Saint Valentine (Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1986), 47.
  5. Ibid., 49.
  6. Ann Tompert, Saint Valentine (Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mill Press, 2004).
  7. Ibid.
  8. For more in-depth discussion, see Kelly and Jack B. Oruch, “St. Valentine, Chaucer, and Spring in February” Speculum 56, no. 3 (July 1981): 534–565.
  9. For an excellent history of how Valentine’s Day and other holidays were transformed by American consumer culture, see Leigh Eric Schmidt, Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995).
  10. Samantha Grossman, “Valentine’s Day 2012, By the Numbers” Time Newsfeed, February 13, 2012, http://newsfeed.time.com/2012/02/13/valentines-day-2012-by-the-numbers/.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, John 15:13.
  14. Photo Credit: Andreka / Shutterstock.com.