Although many associate Valentine’s Day with love and romance, this holiday’s muddled beginning actually stems from a dark and gory period of time.
In the Roman empire, Christians faced persecution until the Edict of Milan in 313 AD. During this bloody time, Emperor Claudius II ordered the execution of Valentine, a Christian priest, Feb. 14. Some argue that more than one Valentine faced execution, but for the purpose of this article, only one Valentine played an unintentional role in the creation of Valentine’s day.
Because of the poor record keeping at the time, the exact history of the execution is muddled. However, historians argue one of the Valentines, Saint Valentine, died after Emperor Claudius II imprisoned him for aiding persecuted Christians and allegedly secretly marrying a Christian couple.
In order to gain “saint” status, Valentine supposedly tutored a blind girl named Julia, the daughter of his jailer. Legend goes that God gave Julia the ability to see after they prayed together, and the night before his execution, Valentine wrote a note to Julia signed “From your Valentine.”
Contemporaneous to Valentine’s life was the Roman festival Lupercalia. From Feb. 13 to 15, Romans gathered for this pagan festival in which men would sacrifice dogs and goats, then beat women with the hides with the belief that it would increase fertility. In the late fifth century A.D., Pope Gelasius I outlawed Lupercalia and commanded Feb. 14 as a day to celebrate Saint Valentine and his martyrdom (although it’s believed Pope Gelasius I didn’t intend it to embody love and passion).
Adding to the idea of Lupercalia influencing what Valentine’s Day is today, the colors associated with Valentine’s Day can arguably be traced to Lupercalian rituals. The red can symbolize the blood sacrifice of Lupercalia and white can represent the milk utilized to clean the blood, signifying new life or procreation.
As time progressed, Valentine’s Day took on a presence of its own. In British Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales,” written over a thousand years after the first St. Valentine’s Day, Chaucer describes the February feast of St. Valentinus as the mating of birds. With his quote “For this was on seynt Volantynys day. Whan every bryd comyth there to chese his make,” Chaucer reinforces the idea of Valentine’s Day’s association with love and romance.
Another popular author, William Shakespeare, romanticized Feb. 14 through his play Hamlet when the lovestruck Ophelia described herself as Hamlet’s Valentine.
From there, English men and women utilized Feb. 14 as a way to express their love. With industrialization following in the future centuries, mass-produced cards furthered the romantic aspect of Valentine’s Day. On these cards, people are introduced to Cupid, the son of the Roman goddess Venus and legendary matchmaker. As legend goes, those hit with the baby Cupid’s golden arrows will fall in love, making it the perfect addition to Valentine’s Day.
In modern times, shops in the U.S. and England adorn their windows with hearts, baby Cupids and chocolates, tempting window shoppers to spend an expected total of $18.2 billion on the holiday, averaging $136.57 per person. For those in the candy, card, teddy bear and jewelry making businesses, Valentine’s Day means a time of both romance and profit, thanks to thousands of years of history.