Updated: Apr 2
Ahh Valentine's Day... for most, it's a day filled with flowers, chocolates, amorous messages, and romantic dinners; and for others, it's just the 14th day of February. Regardless how you celebrate (or don't celebrate), you can't escape the commercialism that takes over most stores and restaurants leading up to Valentine's Day. But, have you ever thought about the actual history behind Valentine's Day? Beyond all the pink and red hearts there is a history dating back to the 3rd century, full of emperors, bishops, miracles, and beheadings.
There Was An Actual Saint Valentine
If you were asked to think of a person that represented Valentine's Day, you would probably think of Cupid, the Roman God of Love; but did you know that there was an actual person for whom Saint Valentine's Day is named? The specifics are a little murky because records from that time were destroyed and/or lost; but according to long-held lore, Saint Valentine was a Roman priest that lived during the time of Emperor Claudius II (214 A.D. - 270 A.D.).
Claudius the Cruel
Emperor Claudius II led many bloody military campaigns, and as time went on, had a difficult time finding men to replace the soldiers that were killed. Claudius believed it was because men did not want to leave their wives and families, so in response, he outlawed marriage. However, Valentine did not agree with Claudius, so he continued to marry lovers in secret. He was eventually found out and Claudius ordered him to be executed. Valentine's sentence was to be carried out by beating and beheading.
A Miracle and a Note
While Valentine was waiting to be executed, he befriended the jailers blind daughter and miraculously healed her blindness. Before being hauled away to be beaten to death, Valentine wrote a short note to his new friend and signed it, From Your Valentine. Valentine's sentence was carried out on 14 February 270 A.D. and he was buried along the Via Flaminia. Approximately 70 years after the death of Saint Valentine, Pope Julius I had a basilica built over the burial site of Valentine, thus keeping his remains safe.
A Basilica and a Flower Crown
Over the centuries, additional structures, catacombs, and mausoleums were built on the site of the original basilica, so it wasn't until archaeological digs in the 1800's that evidence of Saint Valentine's remains were uncovered.
There are several different relics associated with Saint Valentine on display in several different countries; including, Ireland, Scotland, and England, among many other countries. But, the ultimate relic of course, is his flower crowned skull, which is on display in the Basilica di Santa Maria in Rome, Italy.
There are tales of another Valentine in the same era, one who was a Catholic bishop in Terni, Italy. The details surrounding the bishop and what he did to catch Emperor Claudius's ire are very similar to the priest of the same name, so it is widely believed that they are the same person. There have also been over a dozen Valentines that have been canonized over the centuries for various reasons, so in order to keep the confusion to a minimum, the Catholic Church will typically refer to the Saint Valentine for whom the holiday is named, as Saint Valentine of Rome.
Is That the Whole Story?
If you know anything about the Catholic Church, then you know that most things aren't what they seem. Unfortunately, the Catholic Church is notorious for taking over local festivals; usually festivals that celebrate pagan Gods or "savage" deities, and reinventing them as Catholic celebrations. Saint Valentine's Day is no exception. Although Lupercalia was a long-practiced celebration in Rome, the festivities would not be allowed to continue, the Catholic Church would put an end to it.
No one knows the exact beginnings of the Lupercalia celebration, but it has been traced back to the 6th century B.C. Lupercalia was an ancient Roman celebration that took place from 13-15 February, that included nudity, animal sacrifice, and hitting women with animal skin. The festival was celebrated to ward off evil spirits and infertility. Although the festivities became more tame as time went on, the church did not approve of the animal sacrifice or the basis of the festivities. So, in 496 A.D. Pope Gelasius I decreed that 14 February would be Saint Valentine's Feast Day, thus memorializing Saint Valentine and eradicating the Lupercalia festivities.
More Chocolates Please
Definitely not the super lovey-dovey thoughts that are usually associated with Saint Valentine's Day right? The only historical aspect that resembles our current celebrations is the sweet note that Saint Valentine left for the jailers daughter. Even though I am a history nut and enjoyed researching for this article, I would still much rather have our current iteration of Valentine's Day than celebrations of beheaded saints or animal sacrifice.
I hope you enjoyed this little bit of history, I plan to add more articles about this topic, as well as others, over the next few weeks. Let me know in the comments if you'd like to see more articles like this. Be sure to sign up for my newsletter so you don't miss the next article or the next members-only sale!
Until next time!