As February 14 approaches, many will rush out to purchase flowers, candy and, of course, a card. And yet few actually know the origins of Valentine’s Day and why so many spend so much on the symbolic holiday of love. This special day’s history goes far back and, as with most things ancient, the facts are few, speculation plentiful, with even a miracle thrown in. But that’s what makes it so captivating, so elusive and so romantic.

What we do know is that Valentine’s Day’s earliest origins probably arise from the ancient Romans, who celebrated the feast of Lupercalia on February 15. The feast was held in honor of the god, Lupercus, who is credited with protecting the citizens of Rome from the fierce wolves that roamed the woods nearby. Part of the celebration involved the custom of name drawing -- all the young women’s names were put into a box and the young men would draw them. The couples would then be paired off and, for the remainder of the year, would be sweethearts -- a nice way of saying sexual partners. An alternate version of this piece of history is more romantic and probably preferable to the women of ancient Rome. The women wrote love letters, which were placed into an urn. The men would draw out a letter and spend the rest of the year wooing the woman who wrote it.

As Christianity became more prevalent, pagan rituals and celebrations became less acceptable. So, in 496 A.D., Pope Gelasius made a change to the lottery in order to lessen the popularity of the pagan festival. Instead of women’s names or letters, the box contained the names of saints. Both men and women were allowed to draw and the purpose was to emulate the attributes of that particular saint for the rest of the year.

Pope Gelasius then decided a more appropriate figure should be honored in place of Lupercus and searched for a substitution. He found one in Saint Valentine, the patron saint of lovers, and changed the date of celebration to February 14. There are actually three saints by the name of Valentine, or Valentinus, recognized by the Catholic Church, all of whom were martyred on February 14 -- hence, the change in date. But the one the holiday is most likely named after is Valentine the Roman priest who was beheaded by Emperor Claudius II in 270 A.D.


Claudius II wanted to expand his empire and to do that he needed soldiers. To facilitate recruiting, he ordered that all single men were not permitted to marry, speculating that married men with families would want to stay home, without the heart to fight his wars.

Valentine saw the injustice of Claudius II’s edict and so in defiance he married young lovers in secret. When Claudius first discovered this, he attempted to convert Valentine to paganism, but eventually failed. In turn, Valentine tried to convert the emperor to Christianity, which angered Claudius so much he had Valentine thrown in jail and eventually beheaded.

According to one legend, it is said that Valentine wrote the first “Valentine” himself. During his time spent in jail, he developed a friendship with the jailor’s daughter, a young, blind woman. Valentine grew to love the girl, and it is said that through his faith and love he miraculously brought back her sight. On the day of his execution, February 14, he wrote her a letter that he signed, “From your Valentine.”

Though the lottery for picking women was eliminated, the celebration in honor of St. Valentine remained a day for love and Roman men used it as day to win over women’s affections by giving them handwritten notes using Valentine’s name.


It is said the first, true Valentine was sent in 1415 and is credited to Charles, Duke of Orleans, who while imprisoned in the Tower of London sent a love letter to his wife. So this is how the tradition of giving the one you love a Valentine began.

Giving valentines gained popularity rather quickly as an acceptable and accessible way for lovers to express their feelings towards one another. Valentines of yore were handmade, usually with colored paper and colored inks or watercolors. A few ways in which they were made involved emulating lace -- since it is believed that long ago if a woman wished a man to pursue her, she would drop a lace handkerchief for the man to pick up and return to her. The lace was imitated by either using a pin to prick tiny holes or by folding paper several times and cutting bits out to form a design. Two other unique valentines made then -- and now -- are acrostic and rebus valentines. Acrostic valentines use verses of which the first letter of each line when put together would spell out the loved one’s name. Rebus valentines use verses in which a picture would replace the use of a word, like drawing an eye in place of the term, ‘I.’

By the 1800’s, valentines became so popular that the holiday demand created a viable business. Soon factory workers were painting them to produce valentines in larger quantities -- many of them depicting Cupid, a logical mascot for Valentine’s Day as he is the son of Venus, the Roman goddess of love.

For one last bit of trivia involving valentines and love, the tradition of an X representing a kiss finds its origins in the medieval practice of allowing those unable to read and write to sign documents with an X. To validate the use of the letter, it had to be executed in front of witnesses -- the signer would then place a kiss upon the X to demonstrate solemnity and sincerity.

Now with your newfound insight to this romantic holiday, you can take the opportunity to come up with some creative ways to show someone you love them. There’s a good chance that it’ll cost you quite a bit, but it won’t cost you your head.


© Melt Magazine 2001