February has long been celebrated as a month of romance, St. Valentine’s Day, as we know it today, contains vestiges of both Christian and ancient Roman tradition.
The holiday's roots are in the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia (for 800 years the Romans had dedicated this day to the god Lupercus) a fertility celebration commemorated annually on February 15.
Pope Gelasius I recast this pagan festival as a Christian feast day circa 496, declaring February 14 to be St. Valentine's Day.
To begin the festival, members of the Luperci, an order of Roman priests, would gather at a sacred cave where the infants Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were believed to have been cared for by a she-wolf or lupa. The priests would sacrifice a goat, for fertility, and a dog, for purification. They would then strip the goat’s hide into strips, dip them into the sacrificial blood and take to the streets, gently slapping both women and crop fields with the goat hide.
Far from being fearful, Roman women welcomed the touch of the hides because it was believed to make them more fertile in the coming year. Later in the day, according to legend, all the young women in the city would place their names in a big urn. The city’s bachelors would each choose a name and become paired for the year with his chosen woman. These matches often ended in marriage.
The Roman Empire was experiencing massive turmoil at the time. Dubbed the ‘Crisis of the Third Century’ by scholars, this period saw the empire divide into three competing states, with the threat of invasion all around.
Claudius made the unpopular decision to ban marriage among young people, believing that unmarried soldiers fought better than married soldiers. With the Roman Empire hanging by a thread, Claudius needed all the brazen war power he could get.
This is where Valentine comes in; the pesky priest who believed marriage to be a God-given sacrament. Valentine began officiating marriages in secret but was eventually found out and imprisoned.
According to one legend, an imprisoned Valentine actually sent the first “Valentine” greeting himself after he fell in love with a young girl–possibly his jailor’s daughter–who visited him during his confinement. Before his death, it is alleged that he wrote her a letter signed “From your Valentine,” an expression that is still in use today.
The priest was eventually beheaded and then named a martyr by the Church because he gave up his life to perform the sacrament of marriage: for love of love and love of God.
There was also a conventional belief in Europe during the Middle Ages that birds chose their partners in the middle of February. Thus the day was dedicated to love, and people observed it by writing love letters and sending small gifts to their beloved.
The oldest known valentine still in existence today was a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt. (The greeting is now part of the manuscript collection of the British Library in London, England.)
Americans began exchanging hand-made valentines in the early 1700s. In the 1840s, Esther A. Howland, a Mount Holyoke graduate and native of Worcester, Mass., began selling the first mass-produced valentines in America, made with real lace, ribbons and colorful pictures known as “scrap.” She is known as the “Mother of the Valentine.”
Although the mid-February holiday celebrating love and lovers remains wildly popular, the confusion over its origins led the Catholic Church, in 1969, to drop St. Valentine’s Day from the Roman calendar of official, worldwide Catholic feasts.
Today, according to the Greeting Card Association, an estimated 1 billion Valentine’s Day cards are sent each year, making Valentine’s Day the second largest card-sending holiday of the year. Valentine’s Day is celebrated in Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, France, Australia, Italy and Denmark and Great Britain.