Valentine’s Day falls on February 14 each year. Candy, flowers, and presents are given and received amongst loved ones all around the United States and in other countries on Valentine’s Day. But who is this enigmatic saint, and where did these customs originate? Learn about the origins of Valentine’s Day, from the ancient Roman celebration of Lupercalia, which ushered in the spring, to Victorian England’s card-giving traditions.
The Legend of St. Valentine
The origins of Valentine’s Day and the life of its patron saint are mostly unknown. We do know that Valentine’s Day has its roots in both Christian and ancient Roman culture, and that February has long been regarded as the month of love. However, who was Saint Valentine and how did he come to be connected to this traditional ritual?
At least three martyrs with the names Valentine or Valentinus are revered by the Catholic Church. According to one narrative, Valentine was a priest who served in Rome in the third century. Emperor Claudius II forbade young men from getting married because he believed that single men were better soldiers than those with wives and kids. Realizing the unfairness of the law, Valentine disobeyed Claudius and proceeded to secretly marry young lovers. When Valentine’s deeds were revealed, Claudius gave the order to have him executed. Others assert that the bishop Saint Valentine of Terni is the actual source of the holiday’s name. Outside of Rome, Claudius II also beheaded him.
According to some legends, Valentine may have been murdered for trying to aid Christians in escaping the brutal Roman jails, where they were frequently beaten and tormented. One story claims that a prisoner named Valentine, who fell in love with a young girl who visited him while he was incarcerated and may have been his jailor’s daughter, sent the first “valentine” message himself. It is claimed that before passing away, he sent her a letter addressed to “From your Valentine,” a phrase that is still in use today. Despite the ambiguity surrounding the legends surrounding Valentine, they all highlight his attractiveness as a compassionate, valiant, and—most importantly—romantic figure. By the Middle Ages, Valentine would rank among the most well-liked saints in England and France—possibly as a result of this reputation.