So I thought I’d do a quick bit of research and find out who exactly this St. Valentine chap was and why we celebrate all things love on 14th February. Well, as with many things in life it wasn’t quite that simple. Turns out that it’s not just a straightforward story of a saint who champions romance. The reason that we now celebrate love on Valentine’s day is due to a whole host of theories and legends with a few facts thrown in for good measure.
Who was Saint Valentine?
There seem to have been at least 3 Saints (although some sources have up to 14) of the name Valentine, martyred around the time of the Romans. One does appear to have been buried on February 14th outside Rome sometime in the late 3rd century and in 496 Pope Gelasius declared February 14th the saint’s feast day of St.Valentine’s. One of these saints was a Roman Priest who was persecuted under Emperor Claudius II – legend has it that Emperor Claudius II banned marriage because he believed that married men did not make good soldiers but Valentine defied him and married young lovers in secret. Further embellishment of the story has gone on to say that during his imprisonment Saint Valentine restored the sight of the blind jailer’s daughter. And that in turn has been embellished to become that he fell in love with the jailer’s daughter and sent her a note signed “from your Valentine” thus creating the very first Valentine’s card. There does seem to be a fair bit of adjusting of history to fit present day customs in there.
Some have suggested that it was the Pope’s way of trying to introduce some religion into the Roman Pagan feast of Lupercalia (an ancient Roman festival connected to fertility celebrated 13-15 February). But this is a little dubious as there was still no connection between romance and St.Valentine at that point.The first association of romance and St. Valentine’s day seems to have been in Chaucer’s verse in the late 14th century where he mentions St Valentine’s Day, although he doesn’t associate it with 14th February. It progressed from there and was mentioned by Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The famous Valentine’s day poem can be found in a collection of English nursery rhymes dating from 1784:
The rose is red, the violet’s blue,
The honey’s sweet, and so are you
Well by the beginning of the 19th century Valentine’s Day seems to have been established as a celebration of love and romance and sending sentimental verse an acceptable way of declaring your intentions. Cards began to be mechanically produced and with the improving postal service sending cards anonymously became a lot easier. In the 1840s Esther Howland, an American whose father owned a large book and stationery store, picked up on the English custom and the rest, as they say, is history.
So it looks like our present day celebration of St Valentine’s day is not due to one specific event or person but rather appears to be an amalgamation of history, legend, literature and religion all tied up with the most popular subject matter of all art forms: “love”.