The History of Saint Valentine

Should you or should you not subscribe to the ceremony that is Valentine’s Day, might the question of its origins have cropped into your consciousness for at least a fleeting moment on 14th February’s past? 

Though it is recognised as a day of romantic celebration across countries far and wide, recounting its hazy history is not a story that many can narrate with the matched ease that we might for calendar events such as Bonfire Night. This is perhaps partly due to the lack of a sole Saint Valentine figure to whom we can look. Indeed there are said to have been three saints named Valentine – or Valentinus – within the Catholic Church. The tales tied to all three are markedly mysterious, yet they are united by a shared narrative of figures who were sympathetic, heroic and most crucially, romantic. Much-recited stories include clandestine weddings held by Saint Valentine,  and another such Saint Valentine who when imprisoned fell in love with the daughter of his captor and wrote to her before his death, signing it, from your Valentine. It is an expression widely used in Valentine’s cards to this day.

While the history of Valentine’s Day has no clear, single figure to whom it is dedicated, many believe there is a reason for it falling in February each year. Herein, lies the link with Ancient Rome and its pagan fertility festival, Lupercalia, which took place at the ides of February, and resulted in the union of man and woman. It is said that the Christian church offered a version of the festival, placing a Saint Valentine’s feast in the middle of this, the shortest month. As time passed and Christiany prevailed, Lupercalia was outlawed and at the close of the 5th century, Pope Gelasius pronounced 14th February as Saint Valentine’s Day.

Much later did the heady, romantic rituals become intertwined with 14th February. During the Middle Ages in both France and England, the view was held that the date signalled the beginning of mating season for many birds, which encouraged nations to associate Saint Valentine’s Day with love, fertility and romance. This was reiterated in English poet Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem, Parliament of Foules, “For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day, whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.” 

With the rise and fall of each new century, Valentine’s Day celebrations became all the more amorous in countries including Canada, Australia, France, America and Great Britain, amongst others. By the middle point of the 18th century, it was quite common for friends and lovers to exchange tokens and hand-written notes of affection, regardless of class. Advancements in printing technology allowed Valentine’s Day cards to soar in popularity in the 1900s, thus the power of the written word cemented it as a day for arduous expressions of love and deep devotion. 

While the history and Saint Valentine figure continue to be shrouded in mystery with scholars disputing that fact is, in effect fiction, there is no question that somewhere, somehow and thanks to a certain someone, love and the 14th February became one. To part ways they never have, and we very much hope never will.

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