Love is in the air: The origins of a timeless tradition

February 12, 2012

In a couple of days, lovers everywhere will be celebrating Valentine’s Day, the annual day of love. For centuries, friends and lovers have been practicing this tradition, splurging on cards, sweets and other gifts to show their feelings for one another. Yet, does anyone really know the origins of this time-honoured tradition?

Valentine’s Day first began as the Roman pagan festival “Lupercalia”, a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the god of agriculture, and Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome. During the course of the festival, women and crops would be gently smacked with strips of goat hide in hopes of ensuring their fertility in the year to come. It was also customary for young bachelors to draw the name of a woman from an urn who would be his companion for entertainment and pleasure of a more sexual nature. These matches would last until the next Lupercalia festival and many marriages would result from it.

Yet, the Valentine’s Day that we know today is a far cry from Lupercalia. The names aren’t even vaguely reminiscent of one another. The first change made towards establishing the holiday occurred at the end of the fifth century by Pope Gelasius when he deemed it “un-Christian”. Instead, he replaced the festival with the “St. Valentine’s Day” holiday to be held on February 14th. Unfortunately, no one is entirely sure who, or rather, which St. Valentine the holiday is named after, as there are three saints by the name of Valentine, two of whom died around the same time in February and are even buried in the same area in Rome, now known as St. Valentine’s Gate.

Despite the ambiguity, historians believe that the Saint the tradition is named after is Valentine, bishop of Interamna, who lived during the reign of Emperor Claudius II in 270 A.D. The emperor had declared a ban on marriage, believing that single men made better soldiers than married men. Bishop Valentine performed several secret marriages for lovers during the ban until he was discovered and later executed for his ‘crime’.

Although Valentine assisted lovers in forming a legal union, there is no clear evidence of the Saint experiencing romantic love himself. However, one legend claims that when Valentine was imprisoned, he fell in love with the jailer’s blind daughter to whom he miraculously restored vision. On the eve of his execution, he wrote a love note to his sweetheart, signing it “From your Valentine.” It is assumed that this was the coining of the phrase that graces many Valentine’s Day cards today.

In the late fourteenth century, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Parliament of Fowls that inextricably linked St. Valentine as the patron saint of lovers with the line, “For this was St. Valentine’s Day/When every bird cometh there to choose his mate.” The connection between St. Valentine’s Day and the love that Chaucer discusses in his poem helped solidify some of the mythology surrounding St. Valentine that exists to this very day.

The first ‘valentine’ was sent in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife. The letter, containing a short rondeau referring to her as “ma Valentinée”, was sent from the Tower of London shortly after his capture during the Battle of Agincourt. Today it can be found in the British Museum in London, England. In 1537, Henry VIII released a charter officially declaring February 14th St. Valentine’s Day. By the 1700s, cards were exchanged on a regular basis to commemorate the holiday. In 1840, an American woman named Esther Howland began the practice of elaborate, mass-produced Valentine’s Day cards, becoming known today as the “Mother of the Valentine”. Her venture proved to be extremely successful.

The progression from Lupercalia to the Valentine’s Day that we celebrate today was a gradual one. Valentine’s Day has enticed lovers across the world to spend a little of their time and money to commemorate their love for one another. This Valentine’s Day, when you’re settling down to dinner with your loved one or cuddling while watching a movie, think of the early Romans, Pope Gelasius and St. Valentine, and thank them for the opportunity to spend a day honouring the one you love.