While it may not yet be spring, love blooms in February with the observance of Valentine’s Day. But why February 14 for this beloved day? For that, one has to turn to the ancient Romans and the early Catholic Church’s need to integrate pagan rites into its canon.
But let’s start with the man who inspired it all. There are three legends about St. Valentine. One has him as a priest in third century Rome, who secretly married young couples in defiance of ban proclaimed by Emperor Claudius II, who believed single men made better soldiers than married ones. When Valentine’s actions were discovered, he was put to death. Another version has Valentine being killed for attempting to help Christians escape Roman prisons. The final story has Valentine, who was in prison, sending a love letter to his jailor’s daughter, signing it, “From your Valentine.” His death around 270 AD is commemorated by Valentine’s Day, February 14.
However, the date also has a more pagan bent. The first day of the Roman Lupercalia festival, which declared the official beginning of spring, was February 15. Lupercalia was a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, as well as to the Roman founders, Romulus and Remus. One activity of the festivities was a lottery in which young, single women would put their names in an urn from where unmarried men would choose a name and become paired with their chosen woman for a year. These pairs often resulted in marriage. This system was deemed un-Christian and was outlawed. It was Pope Gelasius who in 498 AD declared February 14 as Valentine’s Day—and since then this day for lovers has endured.
Other Valentine’s Day facts:
• The oldest known Valentine’s Day card—from 1415— is on display at the British Museum.
• Esther A. Howland, who is now known as the “Mother of the Valentine,” produced the first commercial Valentine’s Day greeting cards in the U.S. in the 1840s.
• The Greeting Card Association estimates one billion Valentine’s Day cards are sent each year, making it the second largest card-sending holiday—Christmas is No. 1— of the year.
• Valentine’s Day is celebrated in the U.S., the United Kingdom, Mexico, Canada and Australia.