The History of Valentine’s Day

2 min read   •   February 5, 2018
Ilse Stickling – Education Specialist: History

14 February – A day of exchanging chocolates, cards, gifts, and flowers between loved ones. A day of romance and celebration in the month of love, a day dedicated to lovers all over the world. But, what is the story behind Valentine’s Day, and who decided that 14 February should be celebrated as a day of love?

There is a lot of mystery surrounding the exact origin of Valentine’s Day, but it can certainly be dated back to the early Middle Ages, as it contains both Christian and ancient Roman traditions. The Catholic Church recognises at least three different martyred saints named Valentine, but it is mostly believed that Valentine’s Day commemorates a saint who lived and died in the third century.

Legend has it that Roman Emperor Claudius II circulated a decree that outlawed young men to marry, as Claudius believed that single young men made better soldiers. Valentine defied this decree and performed weddings for young lovers in secret. According to this legend, Valentine was executed for defying Claudius’s decree.

Another legend has it that Valentine served a prison sentence in a Roman jail where he tried to help Christians escape from the harsh conditions and treatment. He fell in love with a young woman (apparently the jailor’s daughter) who frequently visited him in prison. According to legend, he wrote her a letter and signed it “From Your Valentine”.

Why 14 February? This was believed to be the date of Valentine’s death or burial in 270 AD. Another possible reason for this date was an attempt to “Christianise” the Pagan celebration Lupercalia, associated with Roman beliefs. It was, however, only in the fifth century when Pope Gelasius declared 14 February St. Valentine’s Day that the date was made official.

During the Middle Ages, Valentine was recognised as one of the most popular saints in England and France. He was considered sympathetic, heroic and romantic, and therefore this day became associated with romance and love. In England and France, February was also believed to be the mating season for birds.

Although Valentine’s Day is still surrounded by mystery, it has been long celebrated as the day of love and February as the month of love. Today, approximately 150 million Valentine’s Day cards are exchanged annually, making it the second largest card-exchanging day, besides Christmas, according to the History Channel’s website.