Valentine’s Day is one of the most popular and celebrated occasions everywhere. Every year, on February 14, millions of people express their love and affection to their partners, friends, and family by exchanging cards, gifts, and flowers, and by enjoying romantic dinners and dates. 

But do you know how Valentine’s Day came to be? 

Do you know the origin and history of this special day of love? You might be surprised to learn that Valentine’s Day has a long and complex history, full of facts and myths, that spans from ancient times to the present day. In this article, we will talk  about Valentine’s Day, and how it evolved from a pagan festival to a Christian feast, and from a medieval tradition to a global phenomenon.

Lupercalia: The Pagan Festival of Fertility and Purification

The earliest roots of Valentine’s Day can be traced back to the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia, which was celebrated on February 15. Lupercalia was a celebration of spring, fertility, and purification, and it honored the god Lupercus, who protected the flocks and the fields from wolves, and the legendary founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, who were suckled by a she-wolf. The festival involved various customs and rituals, such as the sacrifice of goats and dogs, the whipping of women with animal hides, the lottery of names, and the feasting and drinking.

One of the most notorious customs of Lupercalia was the whipping of women with animal hides by naked men, who were called Luperci, or “brothers of the wolf”. The women would line up along the streets, and the men would run around and hit them with strips of animal skin, which were soaked in the blood of the sacrificed animals. This was believed to enhance the women’s fertility and ease their childbirth. Another custom was the lottery of names, in which young men and women were randomly paired for the duration of the festival, or sometimes longer, by drawing names from a jar. This was a form of matchmaking, and some couples even ended up getting married. Lupercalia was also a time of feasting and drinking, and some historians believe that it was the origin of the modern carnival, as people wore masks and costumes, and engaged in games and entertainment.

Saint Valentine: The Martyr of Love and Devotion

The end of Lupercalia came in the late fifth century, when Pope Gelasius I replaced it with the feast of Saint Valentine on February 14. But who was Saint Valentine and why did he become the patron saint of love? There are many legends and stories about Saint Valentine, but the most common one is that he was a priest or a bishop who lived in the third century, during the reign of Emperor Claudius II. According to this legend, Saint Valentine defied the emperor’s ban on marriage, which was imposed to recruit more soldiers for his wars, and secretly performed weddings for Christian couples. He was also said to have healed the blind daughter of his jailer, Asterius, and converted him and his family to Christianity. Before his execution, he sent her a letter, signed “from your Valentine”, which is considered the first valentine message in history. Saint Valentine was beheaded on February 14, around 270 AD, and became a martyr and a symbol of love and devotion. His relics were venerated by many pilgrims, and some of them are still preserved in churches and museums around the world.

There are other versions and variations of the legend of Saint Valentine, and some scholars suggest that there might have been more than one Saint Valentine, who were later confused or merged into one. For example, some sources claim that Saint Valentine was a bishop of Terni, a town in central Italy, and that he was martyred in Rome. Others say that he was a bishop of Interamna, another town in Italy, and that he was martyred along the Via Flaminia, a road that connected Rome to the Adriatic Sea. Some also argue that Saint Valentine was not a single person, but a collective name for several martyrs who suffered under different emperors and persecutions. Regardless of the details, the essence of the legend remains the same: Saint Valentine was a brave and compassionate man, who sacrificed his life for his faith and his love.

The Medieval and Renaissance Origins of Romantic Love

The association of Valentine’s Day with romantic love and courtship began in medieval and Renaissance Europe, where the tradition of courtly love flourished. Courtly love was a concept of love that involved a noble knight who served and admired a noble lady, usually married to someone else, and expressed his devotion and loyalty to her through poems, songs, and deeds. Courtly love was influenced by the literature and culture of the troubadours, the poets and musicians who originated in southern France, and who spread their art and ideas throughout Europe. Courtly love was also inspired by the classical and biblical stories of love, such as the ones of Lancelot and Guinevere, Tristan and Isolde, and Solomon and the Shulamite.

Many poets and artists contributed to the image of Valentine’s Day as a celebration of love and beauty, such as Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Francesco Petrarch, Raphael, and Sandro Botticelli. Some of the most famous works that mentioned Valentine’s Day are Chaucer’s “Parliament of Fowls”, a poem that describes a dream in which the birds gather to choose their mates on Valentine’s Day, under the guidance of the goddess Nature; Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Hamlet”, two plays that refer to Valentine’s Day as a time of love and magic, and also include the characters of Oberon and Titania, the king and queen of the fairies, and Ophelia, the tragic lover of Hamlet; Petrarch’s “Canzoniere”, a collection of sonnets that express his love and admiration for Laura, a woman he saw only once in a church; Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna”, a painting that depicts the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus, surrounded by angels, saints, and cherubs, one of whom is holding a valentine card; and Botticelli’s “Primavera”, a painting that represents the arrival of spring, and features the goddess Venus, the god Mercury, the Three Graces, and the nymph Chloris, who is transformed into Flora, the goddess of flowers, by the god Zephyr.

Valentine’s Day also became a time to exchange cards, gifts, and flowers, and to use symbols like hearts, roses, and Cupid, the god of love. The tradition of sending valentine cards dates back to the 15th century, when the first handmade cards were created and sent by lovers and admirers. The cards were usually decorated with lace, ribbons, flowers, and images of love, and contained poems, messages, and signatures. The tradition of giving gifts, such as jewelry, candy, and perfume, also emerged around the same time, and was influenced by the customs of courtly love and the gifts that the knights gave to their ladies. The tradition of giving flowers, especially roses, has a longer history, and can be traced back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, who associated roses with the goddesses of love, Aphrodite and Venus. Roses were also a symbol of the Virgin Mary, and of the blood of the martyrs, such as Saint Valentine. The symbols of hearts, roses, and Cupid are still widely used today, and have become the universal icons of Valentine’s Day. Many people also chose Valentine’s Day as the day to declare their love and propose marriage, following the example of some famous historical and fictional couples, such as King Richard II and Anne of Bohemia, who married on Valentine’s Day in 1382, and Romeo and Juliet, who pledged their love on Valentine’s Day in Shakespeare’s play.

Valentine’s Day Around the World: A Global Phenomenon of Love and Diversity

Valentine’s Day spread to different countries and cultures around the world, and adapted to local customs and preferences. For example, in Japan and Korea, Valentine’s Day is a day when women give chocolate to men, and men reciprocate on White Day, a month later. In some cases, those who do not receive any chocolate on either day celebrate Black Day, a day to mourn their single status, by eating black noodles. In Finland and Estonia, Valentine’s Day is not only for lovers, but also for friends, and it is called Friend’s Day. In Colombia and Brazil, Valentine’s Day is celebrated in June or July, and it is part of a Love Week, which includes other days dedicated to different types of love, such as friendship, family, and pets. In India, Valentine’s Day is a relatively new and controversial holiday, as it clashes with the traditional values and norms of the society, and it is often opposed by conservative and religious groups, who see it as a foreign or immoral influence. In Iran, Valentine’s Day is banned by the government, and the sale of cards, gifts, and flowers is prohibited, as it is considered a violation of Islamic law and culture. In South Africa, Valentine’s Day is a popular and festive occasion, and some people follow the ancient Roman custom of wearing the name of their lover on their sleeve, literally.

Valentine’s Day also faces some challenges and controversies, such as the commercialization, consumerism, and environmental impact of the holiday. Some critics argue that Valentine’s Day has lost its original meaning and spirit, and has become a marketing tool for businesses to sell more products and services, and to create a social pressure and expectation for people to buy and consume more.