A Short History of Valentine's

A Short History of Valentine's


The History of Valentine’s Day:

Valentine’s day is one of the oldest holidays that we still celebrate. No matter how you celebrate it or with whom we all mark this day in our calendars. But when did it start? Where does Valentine’s day come from? Here is a brief history of Valentines.

Roman Beginnings:

The story of St. Valentine can be traced back to ancient Rome. It is said that he was a priest in third century Rome, under Emperor Claudius II.  Emperor Claudius was supposed to have decided that it was more important to have soldiers for his army who were young and healthy, so he outlawed marriage for young men. He wanted a strong force of single men to make up his army. Valentine thought this was incredibly unfair and continued to perform marriages for young couples in secret. This was in direct defiance of the Emperor’s order. When it was discovered, Valentine was sentenced to death.

This is just one story of the martyred St. Valentine. Others describe him as a man executed on a hill outside Rome, or as a hero who helped Christians escape harsh Roman prisons. Another legend has St Valentine as the priest who signed a letter “from your Valentine” to the daughter of his jailor, whom he had either befriended or fallen in love with.

We will never be able to say for certain which story surrounding this saint in true. Either way, by the middle ages St Valentine was one of the most popular saints in England and his holiday firmly placed in the calendar.

Why February?

There is debate over why Valentine’s is celebrated on the 14th of February. Some argue that it is the anniversary of Valentine’s death or even his burial. However there is also the argument that the church may have decided to celebrate Valentines on the 14th to have it co-inside with the ancient Pagan/Roman holiday of Lupercalia. Lupercalia was celebrated on the 15th February and was a festival of fertility.

While Lupercalia initially survived the rise of Christianity it was outlawed by Pope Gelasius at the end of the 5th century. This was because it was declared “un-Christian”. Some see Valentine’s day as replacing Lupercalia, but again we can’t say for certain this is what they had in mind.

Valentines’ Days’ Development:

By the 1500s valentines letters sent to those you loved or admired had become part of the tradition around this day. By the middle of the 1700s it was common for lovers to exchange small gifts or tokens of their affection for one another. By the late 1700s and early 1800s cards were being commercially printed for the occasion. Today it is second only to Christmas for cards being bought and sent.

~Holly Martin, Museum Assistant.