The History & Meaning of Valentine’s Day

by | Feb 14, 2021 | Blog, Featured Article, Recommendations | 0 comments

Last updated on February 24th, 2021 at 03:13 am

Each February, people flock to the stores to buy Valentine’s cards, flowers, candy and gifts to celebrate their loved ones on Valentine’s Day. Most people would say it is a day to celebrate love and people you love, but where did this tradition start? What is the history and meaning of Valentine’s Day?

When I started digging, I realized that I really didn’t know much about the history of Valentine’s day other than it was based around someone named St. Valentine.

When I realized that the holiday is grounded in Catholic tradition, I reached out to Maria Laughlin, the director of Stewardship & Development at St. James Cathedral in Seattle, WA to guide me in the right direction. She shared a great excerpt with me from the Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs by Francis X. Weiser.

Who was St. Valentine?

Exterior of a Roman Catholic cathedral signifying St. Valentine

On February 14th, 270, St. Valentine, who was a priest, died by persecution at the hands of Claudius II.

Most saints are assigned a particular feast day. A saint’s feast day is the day of their death, however, in some cases, the Church assigns a day to a saint if their death is unknown, or if other saints already have been assigned to their day of death.

St. Valentine’s feast was infamous for the tradition of boys and girls declaring their love for a steady partner for the year. This tradition was popular through a game in France and England where boys drew names for their Valentines.

Our modern-day practice of giving Valentine’s Day cards formed out of this game of drawing names.

How did St. Valentine become associated with love?

There are a few legends behind St. Valentine and his reputation for love.  One legend states that February 14th is a day where birds mate, therefore the day signified love. This theory conflicts with the record of the Feast of Saint Agnes which falls on January 21 and has long been thought to be the mating day of birds.

In addition to the legend of birds, there is legend that before St. Valentine’s death, he wrote a letter to the daughter of his prison master, signing it “from your Valentine”. The conflict in this legend is that the tradition of the day already existed long before this theory.

Is Valentine’s Day a pagan holiday?

Coincidentally, Pagan Romans celebrated an annual feast on February 15th which was called Lupercalia. The feast honored the god, Lupercus, similar to the Greek god, Pan. On the eve of Lupercalia, young people declared their love for each other, choosing a steady partner for the year in honor of the goddess Juno Februata. Young people picked a partner for the following year in February as was March was the beginning of the calendar year in the Roman Republic.

Fun fact about the Roman calendar starting in March. Our last four months of the year, September, October, November and December, mean seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth. These months aligns to the Roman calendar which starts in March as opposed to January.

When the Roman Empire became Christian, as a result pagan patronage and worship shifted. The patronage of Juno Februata changed to St. Valentine. It was a logical swap, as the 14th was St. Valentine’s feast day. The Roman tradition of choosing partners for the year carried on through the Middle Ages in countries with Roman ties. In other countries, the association between St. Valentine and young lovers became the focus of the holiday.

Modern Day Valentine’s Day

The tradition we have in America today of giving Valentine cards to others comes most likely from the adaptation of the Roman tradition of choosing a partner for the year.  To declare “You are my Valentine” to a partner meant a year long commitment to that person. After a year of commitment, marriage was considered.

St. Valentine no longer has a designated feast day, however the Church still acknowledges him as a saint. For those wanting to visit St. Valetine, his  skull is venerated in Rome, however the rest of his relics are venerated in Madrid.

While not everyone may agree on the history of St. Valentine, we certainly can agree that Valentine’s Day is a holiday where love is celebrated.

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