Image courtesy of Isabelle Goetz.

The History of Valentine’s Day

How ironic is a holiday celebrating a man whom we not only know so little about, but also likely multiple people all named valentine! Though known to be a real person who died around A.D. 270 and canonized by the Catholic Church, his true identity was questioned as early as A.D. 496 by the same Church, who the then pope referred to the martyr and his acts as “being known only to God.” This is probably why this saint is referred to as “St. Valentine of Rome” due to there being more than a dozen or so other Valentines alive during that time. Because Valentine, which is rooted in the Latin word for worthy, strong, or powerful, was a popular name in late antiquity, several martyrs over the centuries have carried this name. The official Catholic roster of saints shows about a dozen who were named Valentine or some variation thereof, including a pope.

One account from the 1400s describes Valentine of Rome as a temple priest who was beheaded near Rome by the emperor Claudius II for helping Christian couples wed, to escape from conscription into the Roman army. A different account claims Valentine was the Bishop of Terni, also martyred by Claudius II on the outskirts of Rome. Just by reading these accounts, many clergy members thought these two events refer to the same person. This confusion even led to Catholic Church discontinuing the liturgical veneration of him in 1969, though his name is still extant on its list of officially recognized saints.

However, despite St. Valentine’s romantic martyrdom, the holiday was a banal catholic feast day which even took a medieval poet to begin to associate with love and marriage. Chaucer associated this day with romantic love in his poem, “The Parliament of Fowls” as the following

“For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day

When every bird comes there to choose his match

(Of every kind that men may think of!),

And that so huge a noise they began to make

That earth and air and tree and every lake

Was so full, that not easily was there space

For me to stand—so full was all the place”

The language used for this day poetically began to relate the holiday with love and romanticism. This bud then sprouted in the renaissance era, with the likes of William Shakespeare and the nobility nurturing it, as seen through poems and even the Shakespearan play Hamlet. These romanticists also began to refer to their lovers as “my valentine”, which connects the love letter to the said holiday. However, as the romantic holiday became more popular in the English public, people became very sloppy on their own diction on describing their lover, so much so that a British publisher issued a guide to help men to write sentimental verses to their beloved. This sloppiness eventually evolved into the commercialization of the holiday in the 18th century through the use of valentine cards and chocolates. This Commercialization became so prominent that the average person spent about $131 dollars on the holiday as of 2013. Looking back on the romantic origins to its commercialized reality, one can ponder whether romantic love today is real, or whether love can be bought.

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