Where does the most romantic day of the year come from?
By Brittney MacDonald, Life & Style Editor
I’ve never really been a big supporter of modern Valentine’s Day traditions. I enjoy certain aspects—such as expressing my affection to those I love. However, the pressure involved in trying to plan the perfect date (or dates) just seems like a lot of effort for what I have always assumed was a massive con job put forward by confectionary and card companies in order to fill the dull hours between Christmas and Easter. Pessimistic, sure—and also entirely wrong. Originally Valentine’s Day was not at all about romance and all the fun, sweaty things that go along with it. At least, not really.
Valentine’s Day is actually a secular evolution of the Feast of Saint Valentine, a religious holiday originally formulated in 496 CE by Pope Gelasius I. The Feast of Saint Valentine was held on February 14 and was meant to celebrate Valentine’s service to God and his martyrdom sometime around the third century. Here’s where things get a little confusing. According to the Roman Catholic Church, there are actually at least 12 Saint Valentines—which makes keeping track of who did what a little difficult. There are also a lot of myths and legends regarding Saint Valentine, some associated with the Church and others not.
In one account Valentine was imprisoned for officiating the marriage ceremonies of Christian couples, while in another account he was imprisoned for attempting to convert the Roman emperor Claudius II. The means by which Valentine was eventually executed is also a debated topic. In most Sunday school accounts, he was executed by being torn apart by lions in the Colosseum. However, other historical accounts also claim that Claudius attempted to have him stoned to death, and when that didn’t work, he was beheaded.
Given that there were so many Valentines, all of these stories may be correct. The one consistent thread is that he died on February 14—or the pre-Gregorian calendar equivalent.
So how does some guy’s brutal death lead to the most romantic day of the year? Well, Saint Valentine is the patron saint of engaged couples, happy marriages, and love. (He also happens to be the patron saint of epilepsy and plague, but that’s not important.) However, the kind of love associated with Saint Valentine wasn’t really supposed to elicit thoughts of romantic love—i.e. kisses and awkward prom nights. During the High Middle Ages (around 1000 to 1250 CE), Saint Valentine was associated with courtly love.
Courtly love, in the chivalric literary tradition, is not necessarily romantic or sexual. Essentially, it is a type of devotion between men and women of the nobility in which men are inspired by their ladies to perform great tasks and show their dedication. In the truest sense of courtly love, the woman may not even know she inspires such emotion—the goal is rather the very feeling of such powerful sentiments. The man is seen as closer to divine in nature because he loves without expectation of physical reward. In courtly love stories the woman is often not a fully developed character. She is instead placed on a proverbial, and sometimes literal, pedestal to be admired. Usually her beauty and the fact she is loved are the only notable aspects to her.
This connection between Saint Valentine and courtly love died off in the fourteenth century, when the stories of Saint Valentine were revisited by Middle English writers—most prominently, Geoffrey Chaucer in his poem Parlement of Foules. Modern secular legends of Valentine can usually be traced back to this time period, during which great liberties were taken with the saint’s memory. It was around this time that the myth around exchanging Valentine’s Day cards popped up.
According to the legend, Valentine sent a card signed “from your Valentine” to the daughter of the judge who imprisoned him. For the most part, historians agree that this part of the story is fictional. However, the tragic romance of the gesture was enough to inspire those tiny little tokens of affection we’re forced to give to everyone in our class in elementary school.
This evolution from courtly to romantic continued until the idea of romance and devotion became almost interchangeable in regards to the holiday and Saint Valentine’s patronage. Another factor contributing to this conflation is Valentine’s connection with birds. Birds are seen as a key symbol relating to Saint Valentine. Several writers in the Late Middle Ages—including, notably, Chaucer—recounted that birds pair up for mating in February, implying that the phenomenon sprung from Valentine’s romantic influence. This association became passed down in literature and popular belief, convincing many to see Valentine’s love not as courtly, but as sexual or romantic in nature.
Some scholars have speculated that Valentine’s Day, or the Feast of Saint Valentine, was an adaptation of the pagan holiday Lupercalia. Christian or Anglican holidays are often influenced by pagan traditions as a result of the complex spread and adaptation of early Christianity. This intermingling came partly out of Christian attempts to make their new religion more familiar and palatable to potential converts by adapting certain non-Christian myths and traditions into a Christian narrative. At the same time, newly converted peoples with their own pre-Christian religions incorporated this new faith into their existing belief systems to develop their own forms of practice. Thus, many supposedly Christian holidays incorporate some older aspects of non-Christian traditions—such as Christmas’ link to many ancient winter solstice celebrations.
However, this idea that the Feast of Saint Valentine superseded Lupercalia has been mostly dismissed by modern theologians and historians. The two holidays have very little in common aside from including a lot of food and some vague associations between the celebration of fertility and Valentine’s connection to love and marriage.
As Western society moved past its explicit and deep-seated link between Church and government, the feast celebrating Saint Valentine became more about simply celebrating love in general. Thus, our contemporary version of Valentine’s Day was born—now peppered with all sorts of fun things like candy and cards. As with anything related to people’s emotional connection to one another, this celebration of love became more about using wealth to prove that love.
To the foolish, this remains the goal of Valentine’s Day—but I have faith that most people have actually figured it out. Valentine’s Day is about celebrating those we have created emotional bonds with—whether that be platonic, romantic, monogamous, polyamorous, or however you define your relationship to those important to you—but that doesn’t fit as nicely on a card as “I love you.”