The unclear history of Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day is a day to give chocolates, flowers, and letters to your loved ones. Yet, as I look in stores at all the roses, hearts, and giant teddy bears, I start to wonder — where did Valentine’s Day come from? And who is St. Valentine? Was he really all that romantic?

In search for answers, I went to the MNSU Memorial Library. Being the nerd that I am, I looked in an encyclopedia of the Saints. I learned from The Saints that St. Valentine and the tradition of writing love letters on Valentine’s Day have absolutely nothing to do with each other. Feb. 14 was originally the day that people believed birds would pair up. To celebrate this, young men and women would send letters to each other. The Catholic feast of St. Valentine happened to land on this same date; therefore, his name came to be associated with this tradition.

There is very little known about St. Valentine’s life. According to the encyclopedia, a priest named St. Valentine was martyred in Rome on Feb. 14 in the year 269 after being persecuted by Emperor Claudius. Yet, there was another bishop named Valentine martyred near Rome whose feast was also celebrated on Feb. 14. Perhaps these accounts have become confused, and the two accounts made it seem like people.

The feast of St. Valentine is no longer celebrated as a Catholic feast because so few details are known about his life, yet the romantic traditions that have been associated with this day live on. My search for how these traditions came about then led me to the Juvenile section of the library. I felt like a kid again as I opened up the colorful picture books, which explained Valentine’s Day more clearly than any other reference could.

The kid’s book Valentine’s Day says that in ancient Rome, a festival known as Lupercalia would take place on Feb. 15. The festival honored Lupercus, the god of shepherds. The book explains: “On the night before the festival, every boy would draw a girl’s name out of a vase. The girl would then become the boy’s partner.”

The book further expanded on the priest St. Valentine. It said that Claudius wrote a law saying that men could not get married because he believed married men would not leave their families to fight in his army. Valentine’s Day explains: “Valentine thought this rule was unfair … and secretly carried out marriage ceremonies for young couples. Claudius found out and had Valentine put to death.”

Another children’s book, The Story of Valentine’s Day, gives yet another legend about St. Valentine: “According to one story, Valentine was arrested because he refused to pray to the Roman gods.
In prison, Valentine became friends with the prison guard and his blind daughter.” Later, Valentine was summoned by Claudius, who told Valentine he could be set free if he gave up his religion.
Valentine refused and tried to convert Claudius to Christianity.

Before Valentine was taken away to be beheaded, he “asked the prison guard to give a note to his blind daughter. As soon as the girl opened the note, her sight was miraculously restored and she was able to read what was written on the note: ‘From your Valentine.’” Whether this story is actually true is highly questionable, as there is a lot of mystery surrounding St. Valentine. The mystery of the man associated with romance parallels the very mystery of love itself.

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