Why do we celebrate Valentine’s Day?

The origin of Valentine’s Day is murky, but it is believed that it started as a pre-Roman ritual known as Lupercalia, the official start of Spring. Every year between 13-15 February animals were sacrificed, and people were anointed in blood followed by feasting. As part of the celebrations, boys drew the names of girls from a box and they would be partnered during the festival. However, during the papacy of Pope Gelasius I, the Catholic Church turned this pagan ritual into a Christian celebration. It was dubbed St Valentine’s Day in honour of two Christian martyrs named Valentine of Rome and Valentine of Terni who had both been executed by the Roman Emperor Claudius II, both on 14th February in two different years (13th Century).

The martyr, Valentine of Rome

According to an edict, soldiers were forbidden to marry, because Claudius II believed that single men made better warriors than those with families. Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. He wore a ring with a cupid engraving which helped soldiers recognise him and handed out paper hearts to remind Christians of their love for God, perhaps a precursor to greeting cards. When his actions were discovered, Claudius sentenced him to death. Whist in prison, he fell in love with the jailer’s daughter. On the day of his execution on 14th February, he sent her a love letter to her signed “from your Valentine”.

The saint, Valentine of Terni

Valentine was the Bishop of Terni under the pontificate of Pope Julius I in the mid- fourth century He is said to have financed the construction of a basilica outside the city walls and because of his donation he earned the title of saint in the 6th century.

The origin of the “modern” Valentine’s Day

While the Saint Valentine story set the groundwork for establishing the day as a holiday for romantic love, what truly solidified the connection between Saint Valentine and love was a poem by medieval author Geoffrey Chaucer who wrote in his Parliament of Fowles:

“For this was on seynt Volantynys day, Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make”

For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.

The poem was written on the first anniversary of the engagement of Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia on May 3, 1381 and it’s largely considered the first written instance where Valentine’s Day is associated with romantic love and not fertility. In England and France it was believed that the bird mating season began on 14th February, hence the line in Chaucer’s poem.

By the 15th Century, people were writing handmade valentines, such as the famous poem, “Farewell to Love”, written by Charles, Duke d’ Orléans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London after being captured at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.

The oldest known valentine still in existence today written by Charles, Duke d’ Orléans

By the end of the 15th Century, the word “valentine” was being used to describe a lover in poems and songs of the day and by the mid-19th Century, mass-produced Valentine’s cards were being produced and Valentine’s Day as we know it was born and the 14th February became a day to show affection for one another by sending flowers, chocolates or cards, with messages of love.

Valentine’s Day Massacre

In Prohibition America in 1929, seven members and associates of Chicago’s North Side Gang, a bootlegging operation run by the Irish gangster George “Bugs” Moran, a long-time enemy of Al Capone were killed by a gang organised by Al Capone on February 14. The men were gathered at a Lincoln Park garage on the morning of Valentine’s Day, where they were made to line up against a wall and shot by four unknown assailants.