What is Valentine’s Day?

The holiday of Valentine’s Day is quickly approaching.  Feb. 14 marks the exchange of   cards and tokens of affection gifted between couples  across the world, but where did this tradition come from?

Unfortunately, there isn’t a clear answer, seeing as the holiday originated in events that occurred during the third century AD. Most of what is known about the origins of this day comes from legends and fragments of departed history. Historians have pieced together the more technical events that led up to the creation of Valentine’s day, while the more romantic legends provide an explanation for its emphasis on love and devotion.

It started in the Roman Empire, fifth century AD. Feb. 13-15 was known as Lupercalia, a pagan fertility holiday celebrated through Rome. With Christianity rising throughout Europe, pagan holidays were being renamed after Christian martyrs. After the inspiring life and death of Saint Valentine, in 496 AD Pope Gelasius created the new Christian holiday, referred to as Saint Valentine’s Day to be honored on Feb. 14. It wasn’t until the romantic era that this holiday became widely associated with love, eventually morphing into the modern Valentine’s Day. The legend behind this holiday was what ultimately inspired this romantic association’s development.

There have actually been three Saint Valentines, all martyred on Feb. 14 in different years, but Valentine’s Day refers to the first Saint Valentine who lived during the third century AD. He was an honored priest of Christianity, who was disfavored by the Roman emperor at the time, Claudius II.

At the time, Rome was at war with many territories around it. Claudius needed strong soldiers to fight in his army, and believed that love and marriage would be a hinderance to his soldiers. So naturally, as any respectable Roman emperor would, he banned marriage in order to favor his army.  Many Romans could not believe that an emperor would have the audacity to ban such a simple right as marriage, but their opinions couldn’t be voiced due to the fear of being punished.

Valentine, a Christian priest, believed in the power of love, and realizing the inequity of the edict, took pity on the young lovers desiring marriage. Therefore, he started a hidden marriage ring. Lovers who wanted to get married despite the ban would come to him and he would in turn hold a marriage ceremony for them in a secret location. Unfortunately, such things can only be kept hidden from an all-powerful Roman emperor for so long. Claudius inevitably became aware of Valentine’s ruse, and permanently shut it down. Valentine was taken as a prisoner.

Valentine was sitting in a prison cell awaiting his sentence when his jailer, Asterius, approached him. According to the legend, Valentine had such a strong relationship with God that people would be healed through Valentine’s intercession. Asterius’ daughter was blind, and begged Valentine to pray that God heal his daughter’s blindness. Valentine was happy to help and soon, Asterius’s daughter could see again.  

Emperor Claudius II respected and was even impressed with Valentine’s conviction for his faith; however, he still had an empire which had to be kept in order. Claudius commanded that Valentine stop his illegal operation and pay homage to the Roman gods, denouncing the God with whom Valentine had such an devoted relationship. Despite Claudius’ demands, Valentine would not budge on his certainty of the error of Claudius’ ban on marriage. Having given his life to his God, Valentine would not pay homage to the Roman gods either, and even tried to convert Claudius to Christianity. Despite his attempts, such efforts were futile, and an enraged Claudius sentenced Valentine to execution.

An intense friendship had formed between Asterius’s daughter and her healer. After she heard of her friend’s impending execution, she was heartbroken. She realized she would not be able to see him in time to say goodbye. Just before his execution, Valentine asked for a pen and paper to say to goodbye to his dear friend, signing the letter, “From your Valentine.”

The legend of Saint Valentine has survived centuries of passing time, enduring into the 21st century, and will live on Feb. 14 when lovers across the world sign letters with the same perpetual phrase, “From your Valentine.”