Tipsy Romans, Secret Marriages: The Origins of Valentine’s Day

Tipsy Romans, Secret Marriages: The Origins of Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day, the date known for increasing the sales and production for items like chocolates, flowers, and cards, and exchanging these with our loved ones, revolves around the greater idea of celebrating love and romance. Its origin is, to an extent, incomprehensible. If we go back to 3rd century A.D., we would find ourselves in conflict and confusion with the picture of February 14 then and now.

Happy Lupercalia!

Our present-day representation of love and romance originally stemmed from a Roman celebration known as The Feast of the Lupercalia. This was celebrated from the 13th to 15th of February honoring Faunus, the god of fertility. During the feast, men would sacrifice a goat and a dog, the former representing fertility and the latter representing purification. They would then skin the goat into strips of goat hide and slap women and crop fields with it.

The Romans were drunk and naked and gleeful, and women were eager to take part in this event as it was believed to guarantee them fertility in the coming year. Aside from the men hitting women for fertility, there was also a matchmaking lottery that coupled up the citizens until Lupercalia was over. The matches often ended up getting married.

So where did “Valentine” come from and how did it become the name of our modern-day celebration?

There were at least two different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, and all were martyred. One story starts with Emperor Claudius II, who decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families. Because of this, he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentinus was a priest and he believed that the decree was unjust, so he carried on wedding young lovers covertly. Unfortunately, his actions were discovered and he was sentenced to death. Although, while waiting for his sentence, he was visited by couples who gave him notes about how much better love was than war. Some believe this was the first “valentine”. Valentinus was finally executed by order of Claudius on the 14th of February.

A rendition of St. Valentinus in jail.

Another story is of a man named Valentine who was imprisoned for attempting to help Christians escape harsh Roman prisons. During Valentine’s time in prison, he sent letters to a girl he fell in love with (who was probably the prison guard’s daughter) and signed it with his name. Before his death, he wrote her a letter and, you guessed it— signed it off with “From your Valentine”, which is an expression widely used today.

Due to both Valentines being executed on the same day, by the same individual, their martyrdom was honored by the Catholic Church by celebrating St. Valentine’s Day.

Later in the 5th century, Pope Gelasius I declared February 14th a holy day to honor Valentines and to “Christianize” the pagan celebration of Lupercalia. That didn’t work out though, as Noel Lenski, a historian at the University of Colorado, says, “It was a little more of a drunken revel, but the Christians put clothes back on it. That didn’t stop it from being a day of fertility and love.” It wasn’t until much later, with the rise of Christianity, that the day purely embodied love.

Through the years, and with each passing of the 14th of February, people began to detach themselves from Christian-related customs imposed by the Church and instead turned toward what they believed love was. Even Chaucer and Shakespeare romanticized Valentine’s Day in their works, which gained popularity in Britain and across Europe. This sparked the beginning of making handmade paper cards in the Middle Ages.

By the middle of the 18th century, giving small gifts and especially handwritten letters was a common sight to encounter. Thanks to rapid technological advancements, printed and ready-made cards became available by the 20th century, making self-expression easier. Postage rates were also cheaper at that time, which possibly contributed to the boost in sending Valentine’s Day greetings.  

Early Hallmark gift cards.

Currently, Valentine’s Day has clearly diverged from its Pagan-Christian roots and has instead developed into a commercialized holiday benefiting big businesses. Its success has pushed it to continue to be celebrated in whatever way people choose, whether that be splurging on gifts for significant others, friends, and family, or just treating it like any other day.

So, there you have it! Now you know how Valentine’s Day evolved from a wild Roman festivity to a solemn Christian observance to an annual reminder of romance (or the lack thereof).

Written by: Alya L.


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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article represent the personal views of the author and should not be taken to represent the views of Dragon’s Print and Cebu International School.


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