Valentine’s Day stems from a complex past


Image by Patrick Hascall

Every February 14 brings an abundance of chocolates, roses and glittery cards. But Valentine’s Day wasn’t always about dinner dates and tokens of affection.

The holiday dates back to the ancient Roman festival Lupercalia, a celebration that took place from February 13 to February 15 in which shepherds sought to ensure the health and fertility of their cows and sheep.

The festival involved animal sacrifices and nudity. It started with a priest initiating the sacrifices of goats and young dogs, animals that were thought to have ardent sexual energy. People then drank lots of wine.

Afterward, men exchanged their clothes for the fresh animal skins and ran around striking women whom they were interested in with the animal flesh. Women wrote their names down and placed them in an urn for bachelors to choose. The couples remained together for the rest of the year; these matches often ended in marriage.

The holiday eventually became unpopular. Around the end of the 5th century, Pope Gelasius banned the pagan festival and created a Christian holiday on February 14 in honor of Saint Valentine. However, it is not clear who Saint Valentine was.

The Catholic Church recognizes at least three saints with the name Valentine or Valentinus. The most famous of these saints was a priest in 3rd century Rome.

During this time, Emperor Claudius II believed that the key to a strong army was to make sure the young soldiers remained unmarried. He thought those with wives and families were easily distracted, so he outlawed marriage for the soldiers. Valentine thought this was unjust and continued to marry young couples in secret. When Claudius II found out, he ordered for Valentine to be executed.

The Valentine’s Day initiated by Pope Gelasius did not become popular until the 14th century. However, some historians believe that the Lupercalia festival has no correlation to the current holiday and instead credit English author Geoffrey Chaucer, best known for Canterbury Tales, as its creator. It was Chaucer’s poem “Parliament of the Foules” that is believed to have been the first written words connecting Valentine’s Day with love. As the verse goes:  “For this was Saint Valentine’s day, when every bird of every kind that men can imagine comes to this place to choose his mate.”

During the Middle Ages, in France and England it was believed that February 14 was the start of the bird mating season, adding to the notion that Valentine’s Day was a day for romance.

It wasn’t until the 18th century in Britain that exchanging Valentine’s Day notes become popular. The custom then spread to the United States.

In the 1870s, artist and businesswoman Esther Howland of Massachusetts, first sold the mass-produced Valentine’s cards. Nicknamed “The Mother of the American Valentine,” she took lace, ribbons and colorful pictures to create the elaborate cards, similar to what we see today.


by Itzel Contreras Mendez, Ka ‘Ohana Staff Reporter