The shiny, heart streamers, the pink and red lips, the XOXO signs, and the ‘I love you’ puns are just some of the many inundating reminders of the day dedicated to love (although, ironically enough, it has one of the highest break-up rates of the whole year). No matter how you spend the day — going out with friends, loving yourself, or spending time with your significant other (or breaking up with them) — do you ever find yourself wondering what started it all? Where did this love-obsession day originate and why is it such a big deal? How has it evolved, and where did some of its most popular symbols come from?
Although there is no definitive answer to the exact origins of the day, there are a few predominant theories. The name Valentine’s Day is actually taken from a few Saints named Valentine who lived during the third century. It is widely believed that one St. Valentine in particular, Valentine of Rome, is the most likely origin of today’s February 14 celebrations. Valentine of Rome was a Roman priest, martyred around the year 270 for being a Christian and continuing to share and profess his faith after being imprisoned. Some sources say that the tradition of sending Valentine’s Day cards and letters has its origins in this prison, where St. Valentine would write encouraging notes to his fellow inmates, urging them to stay strong in their faith. Another important Saint was Valentine of Terni. Valentine of Terni was a bishop who was also martyred for his Christian faith. Some sources describe him as a man who was often inspired by love between two individuals, and there are some legends which tell of couples he married whose love was forbidden or destined to end in tragedy (think Romeo and Juliet). He was also martyred around 270.
It should be noted that these stories are similar, and sources are widely varied on exact details of each saint. It is quite possible that St. Valentine of Rome and St. Valentine of Terni were the same person. There are sources which claim that both were martyred on February 14 (not necessarily in the same year). The Roman Catholic church only recognized one St. Valentine, although in 1969 he was removed from the General Roman Calendar because there is so little reliable information about him.
Another origin of Valentine’s Day may be found in the feast of Lupercalia, an Ancient Roman festival celebrated mid-February. It was a feast to honour the god Faunus, who was the protector of livestock, particularly cows, sheep and goats, from wolf attacks. The festival also honoured Lupa, a wolf in Roman legend who nursed the human twins Romulus and Remus (founders of Rome according to legend) back to health. The festival was celebrated by sacrificing goats and a dog. It was largely centered around fertility, and many of the rituals that were associated with the festival were thought to increase fertility.
Feb. 14 did not become associated with romantic love until much later in history. In the 14th Century, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote the poem The Parliament of Fowls, in which he mentions Valentine’s Day in association with birds mating. Although this is extremely unlikely due to the time of year that Valentine’s Day falls, Chaucer is widely thought to be the instigator of turning Valentine’s Day into a holiday celebrating love and romance. Other writers and poets after Chaucer continued to propel this idea. In Hamlet, Shakespeare included a song about Valentine’s Day, spoken by Ophelia in Act 4, Scene 5.
Through these efforts, Valentine’s Day became more and more romanticized. It was in the middle ages that Valentine’s Day cards first became a tradition. From there, it spread to industrialization, when Hallmark Cards began mass producing Valentine’s Day tokens. Today, it is estimated that Valentine’s Day boasts the second most cards sent of any day of the year, eclipsed only by Christmas. Those cards are coupled with chocolate and flowers, along with romantic dinner dates and presents. Today Valentine’s Day is an incredibly commercialized holiday, bringing in billions of dollars from celebration tokens and traditions.