Saint Valentine’s Day, commonly known as Valentine’s Day, or the Feast of Saint Valentine, is observed on February 14 each year. It is celebrated in many countries around the world, although it remains a working day in most of them.
St. Valentine’s Day began as a liturgical celebration of one or more early Christian saints named Valentinus. The most popular martyrology associated with Saint Valentine was that he was imprisoned for performing weddings for soldiers who were forbidden to marry and for ministering to Christians, who were persecuted under the Roman Empire; during his imprisonment, he is said to have healed the daughter of his jailer Asterius. Legend states that before his execution he wrote “from your Valentine” as a farewell to her. Today, Saint Valentine’s Day is an official feast day in the Anglican Communion, as well as in the Lutheran Church. The Eastern Orthodox Church also celebrates Saint Valentine’s Day, albeit on July 6th and July 30th, the former date in honor of the Roman presbyter Saint Valentine, and the latter date in honor of Hieromartyr Valentine, the Bishop of Interamna (modern Terni).
The day was first associated with romantic love in the circle of Geoffrey Chaucer in the High Middle Ages, when the tradition of courtly love flourished. By the 15th century, it had evolved into an occasion in which lovers expressed their love for each other by presenting flowers, offering confectionery, and sending greeting cards (known as “valentines“). Valentine’s Day symbols that are used today include the heart-shaped outline, doves, and the figure of the winged Cupid. Since the 19th century, handwritten valentines have given way to mass-produced greeting cards.
Numerous early Christian martyrs were named Valentine. The Valentines honored on February 14 are Valentine of Rome (Valentinus presb. m. Romae) and Valentine of Terni (Valentinus ep. Interamnensis m. Romae). Valentine of Rome was a priest in Rome who was martyred about AD 269 and was buried on the Via Flaminia. The flower crowned skull of St Valentine is exhibited in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome. Other relics are found in the Basilica of Santa Prassede, also in Rome, as well as at Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church in Dublin, Ireland.
Valentine of Terni became bishop of Interamna (modern Terni) about AD 197 and is said to have been martyred during the persecution under Emperor Aurelian. He is also buried on the Via Flaminia, but in a different location than Valentine of Rome. His relics are at the Basilica of Saint Valentine in Terni (Basilica di San Valentino).
The Catholic Encyclopedia also speaks of a third saint named Valentine who was mentioned in early martyrologies under date of February 14. He was martyred in Africa with a number of companions, but nothing more is known about him. Saint Valentine’s head was preserved in the abbey of New Minster, Winchester and venerated.
February 14 is celebrated as St Valentine’s Day in various Christian denominations; it has, for example, the rank of ‘commemoration’ in the calendar of saints in the Anglican Communion. In addition, the feast day of Saint Valentine is also given in the calendar of saints of the Lutheran Church. However, in the 1969 revision of the Roman Catholic Calendar of Saints, the feast day of Saint Valentine on February 14 was removed from the General Roman Calendar and relegated to particular (local or even national) calendars for the following reason: “Though the memorial of Saint Valentine is ancient, it is left to particular calendars, since, apart from his name, nothing is known of Saint Valentine except that he was buried on the Via Flaminia on February 14.” The feast day is still celebrated in Balzan (Malta) where relics of the saint are claimed to be found, and also throughout the world by Traditionalist Catholics who follow the older, pre-Second Vatican Council calendar. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, St. Valentine’s Day is celebrated on July 6th, in which Saint Valentine, the Roman presbyter, is honoured; furthermore, the Eastern Orthodox Church obsesrves the feast of Hieromartyr Valentine, Bishop of Interamna, on July 30th.
Bishop Demetri of the Orthodox Research Institute, in a keynote address, states that “St. Valentine was a priest near Rome in about the year 270 A.D, a time when the church was enduring great persecution. His ministry was to help the Christians to escape this persecution, and to provide them the sacraments, such as marriage, which was outlawed by the Roman Empire at that time.” Contemporary records of Saint Valentine were most probably destroyed during the Diocletianic Persecution on early 4th century. In the 5th or 6th century, a work called Passio Marii et Marthae published an invented story of martyrdom for Saint Valentine of Rome, probably by borrowing tortures that happened to other saints, as it was usually made in the literature of that period. It states that St Valentine was persecuted as a Christian and interrogated by Roman Emperor Claudius II in person. Claudius was impressed by Valentine and had a discussion with him, attempting to get him to convert to Roman paganism in order to save his life. Valentine refused and tried to convert Claudius to Christianity instead. Because of this, he was executed. Before his execution, he is reported to have performed a miracle by healing Julia, the blind daughter of his jailer Asterius. The jailer’s daughter and his forty-four member household (family members and servants) came to believe in Jesus and were baptized. In addition to this, Saint Valentine is said to have performed clandestine Christian weddings for soldiers who were forbidden to marry. The Roman Emperor Claudius II supposedly forbade this in order to grow his army, believing that married men did not make for good soldiers. According to legend, in order to “remind them of God’s love and to encourage them to remain faithful Christians,” Saint Valentine is said to have cut hearts from parchment, giving them to the soldiers and persecuted Christians, a possible origin of the widespread use of hearts on Saint Valentine’s Day. A later Passio repeated the legend, adding that Pope Julius I built a church over his sepulcre (it’s a confusion with a 4th century tribune called Valentino who donated land to build a church at a time when Julius was a Pope). The legend was picked up as fact by later martyrologies, starting by Bede’s martyrology in the 8th century. It was repeated in the 13th century, in Legenda Aurea. The book expounded briefly the Early Medieval acta of several Saint Valentines, and this legend was assigned to the Valentine under 14 February.
There is an additional embellishment to The Golden Legend, which according to Henry Ansgar Kelly, was added centuries later, and widely repeated. On the evening before Valentine was to be executed, he would have written the first “valentine” card himself, addressed to the daughter of his jailer Asterius, who was no longer blind, signing as “Your Valentine.” This expression “From your Valentine” is still used to this day.This legend has been published by both American Greetings and The History Channel. John Foxe, an English historian, as well as the Order of Carmelites, state that Saint Valentine was buried in the Church of Praxedes in Rome, located near the cemetery of St Hippolytus. This order says that according to legend, “Julia herself planted a pink-blossomed almond tree near his grave. Today, the almond tree remains a symbol of abiding love and friendship.”
There is no evidence of any link between Saint Valentine’s Day and the rites of the ancient Roman festival, despite many claims by many authors. The celebration of Saint Valentine did not have any romantic connotations until Chaucer’s poetry about “Valentines” in the 14th century.
Popular modern sources claim links to unspecified Greco-Roman February holidays alleged to be devoted to fertility and love to St. Valentine’s Day, but prior to Chaucer in the 14th century, there were no links between the Saints named Valentinus and romantic love. Earlier links as described above were focused on sacrifice rather than romantic love. In the ancient Athenian calendar the period between mid-January and mid-February was the month of Gamelion, dedicated to the sacred marriage of Zeus and Hera.
In Ancient Rome, Lupercalia, observed February 13–15, was an archaic rite connected to fertility. Lupercalia was a festival local to the city of Rome. The more general Festival of Juno Februa, meaning “Juno the purifier “or “the chaste Juno”, was celebrated on February 13–14. Pope Gelasius I (492–496) abolished Lupercalia.
Alban Butler in his Lifes of the Principal Saints (1756–1759) claimed without proof that men and women in Lupercalia drew names from a jar to make couples, and that modern Valentine’s letters originated from this custom. In reality, this practice originated in the Middle Ages, with no link to Lupercalia, with men drawing the names of girls at random to couple with them. This custom was combated by priests, for example by Frances de Sales around 1600, apparently by replacing it with a religious custom of girls drawing the names of apostles from the altar. However, this religious custom is recorded as soon as the 13th century in the life of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, so it could have a different origin.
Chaucer’s love birds
The first recorded association of Valentine’s Day with romantic love is in Parlement of Foules (1382) by Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer wrote:
For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.
[“For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.”]
This poem was written to honor the first anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia. A treaty providing for a marriage was signed on May 2, 1381. (When they were married eight months later, they were each only 15 years old).
Readers have uncritically assumed that Chaucer was referring to February 14 as Valentine’s Day; however, mid-February is an unlikely time for birds to be mating in England. Henry Ansgar Kelly has pointed out that Chaucer could be referring to May 3, the celebration in the liturgical calendar of Valentine of Genoa, an early bishop of Genoa who died around AD 307. Jack B. Oruch says that date for the start of Spring has changed since Chaucer’s time due to precession of equinoxes and the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1582. The weather would correspond to the modern 23 February, a time when some birds have started mating and nesting in England.
Chaucer’s Parliament of Foules is set in a fictional context of an old tradition, but in fact there was no such tradition before Chaucer. The speculative explanation of sentimental customs, posing as historical fact, had their origins among 18th-century antiquaries, notably Alban Butler, the author of Butler’s Lives of Saints, and have been perpetuated even by respectable modern scholars. Most notably, “the idea that Valentine’s Day customs perpetuated those of the Roman Lupercalia has been accepted uncritically and repeated, in various forms, up to the present”.
There were other three authors who made poems about birds mating in Saint Valentine’s Day around the same years: Otton de Grandson from Savoy, John Gower from England, and a knight called Pardo from Valencia. Chaucer most probably predated all of them, but, due to the difficulty of dating medieval works, we can’t know for sure who of the four had the idea first and influenced the others.
Medieval period and the English Renaissance
Using the language of the law courts for the rituals of courtly love, a “High Court of Love” was probably established by princess Isabel of Bavaria in Paris in 1400. It was founded on 6 January, the festivity of a Bavarian Saint Valentin, with The Charter of the Court of Love. The court dealt with love contracts, betrayals, and violence against women. Judges were selected by women on the basis of a poetry reading. It was probably based on the poems of Grandson, and not on the poems of Chaucer. It is possible that the actual Court never existed and that it was all an invention of the princess.
The earliest surviving valentine is a 15th-century rondeau written by Charles, Duke of Orléans to his wife, which commences.
Je suis desja d’amour tanné
Ma tres doulce Valentinée…
—Charles d’Orléans, Rondeau VI, lines 1–2]
At the time, the duke was being held in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt, 1415.
The earliest surviving valentines in English appear to be those in the Paston Letters, written in 1477 by Margery Brewes to her future husband John Paston “my right well-beloved Valentine”.
Valentine’s Day is mentioned ruefully by Ophelia in Hamlet (1600–1601):
To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.
Then up he rose, and donn’d his clothes,
And dupp’d the chamber-door;
Let in the maid, that out a maid
Never departed more.
—William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 5
John Donne used the legend of the marriage of the birds as the starting point for his Epithalamion celebrating the marriage of Elizabeth, daughter of James I of England, and Frederick V, Elector Palatine on Valentine’s Day:
Hayle Bishop Valentine whose day this is
All the Ayre is thy Diocese
And all the chirping Queristers
And other birds ar thy parishioners
Thou marryest every yeare
The Lyrick Lark, and the graue whispering Doue,
The Sparrow that neglects his life for loue,
The houshold bird with the redd stomacher
Thou makst the Blackbird speede as soone,
As doth the Goldfinch, or the Halcyon
The Husband Cock lookes out and soone is spedd
And meets his wife, which brings her feather-bed.
This day more cheerfully than ever shine
This day which might inflame thy selfe old Valentine.
—John Donne, Epithalamion Vpon Frederick Count Palatine and the Lady Elizabeth marryed on St. Valentines day
The verse Roses are red echoes conventions traceable as far back as Edmund Spenser’s epic The Faerie Queene (1590):
She bath’d with roses red, and violets blew,
And all the sweetest flowres, that in the forrest grew.
The modern cliché Valentine’s Day poem can be found in the collection of English nursery rhymes Gammer Gurton’s Garland (1784):
The rose is red, the violet’s blue,
The honey’s sweet, and so are you.
Thou art my love and I am thine;
I drew thee to my Valentine:
The lot was cast and then I drew,
And Fortune said it shou’d be you.
In 1797, a British publisher issued The Young Man’s Valentine Writer, which contained scores of suggested sentimental verses for the young lover unable to compose his own. Printers had already begun producing a limited number of cards with verses and sketches, called “mechanical valentines,” and a reduction in postal rates in the next century ushered in the less personal but easier practice of mailing Valentines. That, in turn, made it possible for the first time to exchange cards anonymously, which is taken as the reason for the sudden appearance of racy verse in an era otherwise prudishly Victorian.
Paper Valentines became so popular in England in the early 19th century that they were assembled in factories. Fancy Valentines were made with real lace and ribbons, with paper lace introduced in the mid-19th century. The reinvention of Saint Valentine’s Day in the 1840s has been traced by Leigh Eric Schmidt. As a writer in Graham’s American Monthly observed in 1849, “Saint Valentine’s Day… is becoming, nay it has become, a national holyday.” In the United States, the first mass-produced valentines of embossed paper lace were produced and sold shortly after 1847 by Esther Howland (1828–1904) of Worcester, Massachusetts.
Her father operated a large book and stationery store, but Howland took her inspiration from an English Valentine she had received from a business associate of her father. Intrigued with the idea of making similar Valentines, Howland began her business by importing paper lace and floral decorations from England. The English practice of sending Valentine’s cards was established enough to feature as a plot device in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mr. Harrison’s Confessions (1851): “I burst in with my explanations: ‘”The valentine I know nothing about.” ‘”It is in your handwriting”, said he coldly. Since 2001, the Greeting Card Association has been giving an annual “Esther Howland Award for a Greeting Card Visionary.”
Since the 19th century, handwritten notes have given way to mass-produced greeting cards. In the UK, just under half of the population spend money on their Valentines and around 1.3 billion pounds are spent yearly on cards, flowers, chocolates and other gifts, with an estimated 25 million cards being sent. The mid-19th century Valentine’s Day trade was a harbinger of further commercialized holidays in the United States to follow.
In the second half of the 20th century, the practice of exchanging cards was extended to all manner of gifts. Such gifts typically include roses and chocolates packed in a red satin, heart-shaped box. In the 1980s, the diamond industry began to promote Valentine’s Day as an occasion for giving jewelry.
The U.S. Greeting Card Association estimates that approximately 190 million valentines are sent each year in the US. Half of those valentines are given to family members other than husband or wife, usually to children. When you include the valentine-exchange cards made in school activities the figure goes up to 1 billion, and teachers become the people receiving the most valentines.
The rise of Internet popularity at the turn of the millennium is creating new traditions. Millions of people use, every year, digital means of creating and sending Valentine’s Day greeting messages such as e-cards, love coupons or printable greeting cards. An estimated 15 million e-valentines were sent in 2010. Valentine’s Day is considered by some to be a Hallmark holiday due to its commercialization.