Valentine’s Day: A Brief History

Nowadays Valentine’s Day is associated with love and commercialism. However, the origins of the day are far more interesting, tragic and violent. In ancient Rome, the pagan fertility festival of Lupercalia was celebrated in from the 13th to the 15th of February. The festival itself honoured Lupa, the wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome. The festival also honoured the Roman God Faunus, the God of fertility. Traditions on this day were somewhat more gruesome than traditions today and included animal sacrifice. Young women were whipped with the bloody skin of the animal sacrifices to ensure they were fertile for the next year.

In the 5th century, Pope Galasius I tried to Christianise the day by declaring it Saint Valentine’s day. There were many Saint Valentines that were canonised over the years but the one most associated with the day is the Saint that died in AD 269 in under the reign of Emperor Claudius II. Interestingly, Saint Valentine of Rome is also the patron saint of epilepsy and beekeeping. Saint Valentine was a clergyman who ministered to persecuted Christians, and also conducted secret marriages for them. Emperor Claudius II had banned marriage as he constantly needed men to fight in the army. He did not want men in the army to have a family that they would be attached to, as it became hard for the men to abandon their loved ones. Unfortunately, Claudius found out about Saint Valentine’s secret activities and put him in jail. According to legend, people who he had married posted roses into his cell. There are also rumours about a love story between Saint Valentine and his jailer’s daughter, with notes being exchanged before his execution being signed off with ‘from your valentine.’ He was martyred on February 14th and buried on the hill of Terni. His relics were kept at the Church and Catacombs of San Valentino in Rome, which became an important site for pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Valentine’s day is also known as the Feast of Saint Valentine.

Throughout the 14th and 15th centuries the festival became more widely associated with courtly love, spring and fertility, an association that to some extent continues to this day. During the 18th century the day became associated with expressing feelings of love, and in the Victorian age of commercialism, the festival really took off. Cards began to find their way into shops, usually decorated with the image of Cupid. Valentines cards emerged in America during the 1840s also. Different countries have different traditions however, and in Italy Valentine’s Keys are exchanged, giving lovers the power to unlock each other’s hearts. Keys are also given to children to ward off epilepsy. Nowadays, different regional areas have different folk traditions. In Norfolk, a character called ‘Jack’ Valentine knocks on the back door of houses leaving presents for children. In the UK, 1.3 billion pounds is spent yearly on Valentine’s day gifts. Twenty-five million cards are also sent each year. It remains one of the biggest celebrations of the year, after Christmas day.

Thanks for reading!

Published by harpalkhambay

I am an English Literature and History graduate, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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