The mystery of just how Valentine’s Day began, is as contested as any modern day conspiracy theory. Was Saint Valentine a real person who we associate with February’s celebration of love? There has been three martyred Saint Valentines, but there are also plenty of other claims to the title.
A wonderfully romantic take on the myth, is that Valentine was a Roman priest who stood up for love when he married people in secret after Emperor Claudius II (that scallywag) outlawed marriage for young men in favour of having them battle hungry.
Another theory is that Valentine was an imprisoned Christian sympathizer who fell in love with his jailer’s daughter, singing his notes to her, ‘from your Valentine’. How rom-com worthy.
By the often-gory middle ages, Valentine had become one of the most popular saints in Europe. There’s speculation that the Church encouraged the creation of a Valentine’s Day to overshadow a popular Roman fertility festival that occurred mid-February. The feast of Lupercalia ran from 13th – 15th February and harked back to the myth of Romulus and Remus, founders of Rome and sucklers of wolves.
Lupercalia was a riot – men sacrificed a goat and a dog, then skinned the animals and whipped women with their hides. This was such an honour apparently (no Netflix in the Middle Ages) that women would queue for the delight, believing it would make them fertile. After the fun of woman-whipping, the celebration would move to a matchmaking lottery. Young men picked women’s names from a jar and they would spend the festival together. Medieval Tinder, if you will.
Other suggestions include celebrating the anniversary of Valentine’s death and another about aligning with the mating season of birds.
Regardless, the modern valentine as we know it (cards declaring your like, love, undying infatuation with another) dates all the way back to the 15th Century. The British Library holds an original valentine from 1415 from Charles, Duke of Orleans who sent his wife a poem while he was being held in the Tower of London after being captured in battle. Henry V, that old romantic, even hired a writer to compose his valentines.
It was the 19th Century when valentine’s gifts, flowers and tokens of affection were popularized and in 1913, Hallmark cards started mass-producing valentines. Now, over 1 billion valentine cards are purchased worldwide, making it the second most popular card-giving holiday after Christmas. Other countries across the world celebrate their Valentine’s Day equivalents throughout the year, not on February 14th.