Happy Valentine’s Day! A statement that will become more and more popular as we near that famous day of the year. When is Valentines Day this year? Well, Valentines Day 2019 takes place on Thursday February 14th. But, with the date fast approaching, there is more to take into consideration than what gifts to buy or who to send a card to. In this article, we’re going to explore the Valentine’s Day history. We’ll take a look at some of the common origin stories surrounding this romantic day: from Roman festivals of fertility to Christian Saints and priests. We’ll then take a moment to consider how people celebrate this holiday, and for how long they’ve been doing so.
Ancient Rome and Happy Valentine’s Day
If you traveled back to Ancient Rome prior to the rise of Christianity, you wouldn’t find a single person saying, “Happy Valentine’s Day”. During the same time of the year, you would find a festival taking place known as Lupercalia. This was a festival of fertility that sought to honor the Roman God of Agriculture, Faunus, while also increasing the fertility of women, animals, and crops within the Roman Empire.
To us, this festival may seem a little bizarre. The priests of Rome would gather in a cave where the mythical founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, were believed to have been suckled by a she-wolf until a shepherd discovered them. In this case, animal sacrifices would be made to Faunus which is how the Romans honored their Gods and paid their respects to them. These animal hides would be carried around the city, being touched to women, animals, and crops, in the hopes of making them more fertile during the coming spring.
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Happy Valentines Day
This festival wasn’t viewed as scary, it was welcomed by all as higher levels of fertility meant a greater harvest later in the year or more bodies to help build the Roman Empire into the legend that it still is to this day. Another aspect of this fertility festival involved women putting their names into a jar or urn and being randomly assigned bachelors. Many believe that as Rome became increasingly Christian towards the end of the 5th century, venturing further and further away from Pagan Gods, Pope Gelasius I announced that the festival would become a celebration of St. Valentine.
However, there are many other accounts of the origin of the Valentine tradition and wishing Happy Valentine’s Day. Most of these take place within the Roman Empire during the rise of Christianity. As Christianity acknowledges multiple saints by the name ‘Valentine’, there are a few different stories and it’s rather unclear which is the true origin of the day. It’s possible that all of them played a role.
The Jailer’s Daughter
One account takes place around 270CE when Emperor Claudius II was increasing the persecution of the Christianity. During this time, practicing any non-Roman religion was considered a crime, particularly in relation to Christianity which was beginning to increase in popularity. Those expected of being guilty would often face punishment at the hands of Roman soldiers.
A priest by the name of Valentine, stood up for a group of Christians who were receiving a flogging. As a result, he was sentenced to death. Some accounts state that during his time in prison, prior to his execution, he befriends the jailer’s daughter, apparently healing her of blindness and ultimately, falling in love with her. As the date of his execution drew nearer, he signed his final letter to her with “from your Valentine”, leading to the celebration that we know today.
The Outlawed Weddings
Another account, also during the reign of Emperor Claudius II, relates to the soldiers of the Roman Empire. Claudius concluded that men were more willing to go to war when they didn’t have wives and children waiting for them at home. As such, he outlawed marriage among the younger population of men to encourage their willingness to fight. A priest, named Valentine, took it upon himself to marry young couples in secret so that they could spend their lives together.
When his act of defiance was discovered, the priest was sentenced to death and became a martyr, not only to the people he had wed, but to all those who had ever been in love.
Traditions about Happy Valentine’s Day
Despite having such ancient origins, the traditions we associate with having a Happy Valentine’s Day are relatively recent. Of course, it’s possible that we simply haven’t found evidence of older traditions. After all, love letters would be the first thing to decompose. Of course, writing letters or sending Happy Valentine’s Day cards is largely what we associate the day with.
It may shock you to hear that sending Valentines messages didn’t start happening until the 1500s, at least on a scale large enough for us to consider it a tradition. It was later still that this became a commercial aspect of our societies, with the commercial card becoming commonplace towards the end of the 1700s. In the United States, this date was even later, as commercial Valentine’s cards didn’t become popular until the 1850s.
During this tradition, as many as 150 million cards are exchanged around the world. There is only one day that involves card-sending on a larger scale than that: Christmas. The cards we send typically say “ Happy Valentine’s Day ” and include messages of good luck, well-being, or love. The Roman God of love, Cupid, is often depicted on these cards which connects the day to its roots, all of which seem to have started within Ancient Rome.