Who Was Saint Valentine? A History of Valentine’s Day

Who Was Saint Valentine?

The sun is shining and the birds are singing as love fills the air. That’s right: It’s Valentine’s Day! Whether you’re single or in a relationship, Valentine’s Day remains a popular, albeit commercialized, holiday for many across the world. No matter how you choose to celebrate (if at all), Valentine’s Day is all about spreading love, both to yourself and others. But have you ever stopped to think about where this holiday even comes from. Why do we celebrate it? And just who was Saint Valentine in the first place?

Who Was Saint Valentine?

Valentine’s Day has its origins in a Western Christian feast day that honors two early saints named Valentinus. Yes, there was more than one Saint Valentine (in fact, there have been multiple throughout history). There are various stories and legends of martyrdom associated with these two primary Valentines, though little is know about them from a historical perspective.

According to one legend, Valentine or Valentinus was a priest who was martyred during the rule of Emperor Claudius II. Claudius believed that men who were single made stronger soldiers than those who had families and wives. Thus, he decreed that no soldier be married under his leadership. Valentine believed that this decree was an injustice, and so, acted against the order, marrying soldiers in secret. Once found out by the Emperor, Valentine was imprisoned and sentenced to death.

In another story, Valentine is a priest who is jailed and sentenced to death for ministering to persecuted Christians in the Roman Empire. During his confinement, this Valentine supposedly fell in love, with a jailer’s daughter no less. Upon the day of his death, a letter was sent to his lover. It was signed, “from Your Valentine.”

Why is February 14th Significant?

February 14th is significant because this was the date that both Valentines were said to have been martyred. As such, it has been on this date that the two saints have traditionally been honored.

However, while there are many nice stories about saints named Valentine, the reality is that virtually nothing is known about them. So much has been embellished about these two saints, that in 1969, the Roman Catholic Calendar of Saints was revised to remove the feast day of Saint Valentine. The driving force behind this was the fact that all that is really known for sure is that there was a Saint Valentine of Rome who was buried on the Via Flaminia on February 14th.

It’s also worth noting here that the Romans celebrated an ancient pagan fertility holiday called Lupercalia on February 15th. Some historians believe that our modern Valentine’s Day actually has its origins in Lupercalia. Though, unlike the commercialized holiday we celebrate today, Lupercalia was an intense, violent, and bloody celebration with animal sacrifices and random matchmaking and coupling.

History of Valentine’s Day

In the late 400s, Pope Gelasius declared Valentine’s Day in honor of St. Valentine. But it wasn’t until the 14th century where we start to see the day associated with romance. In fact, many credit English poet Geoffrey Chaucer for helping popularize the holiday as a day of love. His poem, Parlement of Foules, contains one of the earliest references to the idea that St. Valentine’s Day is a special day for lovers.

It does seem around the time of Chaucer that Valentine’s Day starts to gradually become more popular. One of the oldest Valentine’s letters, still in existence to this day, was written by Charles Duke of Orleans to his wife in 1415. In United Kingdom, Valentine’s Day would really take off around the 17th century, with mass Valentine’s Day cards being produced in America shortly after.

Valentine’s Day is an exciting celebration of love for that special person or special people who bring joy and happiness into your life. Some call it a “Hallmark holiday”— just an excuse to celebrate. While this may be true, as the holiday has yet to be recognized publicly by any state or country, 62% of adults celebrate Valentine’s Day in the United States alone. It’s safe to say this holiday isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Want to learn the history behind other holidays? Click here to find more from the Sporcle Blog! Or, test your luck with some fun holiday quizzes on Sporcle!