“Valentine” was a common name in the ancient world. There were at least two revered men named Valentine who had nothing to do with romantic or erotic exploits. Moreover, February 14th has no particular significance on the ancient calendar. So, who is St. Valentine? Historians cannot say for sure.
All the early martyred “Valentines” met bloody ends. The festival to which Valentine’s Day is historically linked is Lupercalia, held in Roman times on February 15th. A bloody and sexually-charged celebration featuring animal sacrifice and random coupling, the festivities were intended to ward off infertility. Red – the color of St. Valentine’s Day – is believed to derive from this bloody celebration. As Lupercal celebrants donned proper clothing in later years, the Roman Catholic Church declared “Valentine,” a saint who was martyred on February 14th. The switch from a pagan ritual to feast day was formalized in the 5th Century, although the mostly celibate priests did not emphasize romantic love and considered the day pagan in its roots.
The first attribution of St. Valentine to romance was written by Geoffrey Chaucer, author of Canterbury Tales. In 1387, he wrote a poem called “Parliament of Foules” in celebration of King Richard II’s engagement to Anne of Bohemia. In this courtly poem, birds converse on romance, love and mating. “For this was on seynt Volantynys day. Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make …” February 14th is the day.
The first “valentine” was a poem written by Charles Duke of Orleans to his wife while imprisoned in the Tower of London. Through Victorian times, valentines were handmade, large, and gaudy. The Valentine’s Day industry accredited to Esther Howland of Worcester, Massachusetts. In 1847, she started a small business printing homemade cards that grew into a large company. Today, Valentine’s Day generates more than $20 billion in revenue between cards, gifts, and – of course – flowers, outpacing Easter and Halloween.
St. Valentine is still venerated as a saint within the Roman Catholic Church but is no longer part of the feast calendar. This particular saint continues to exist in the realm of romantic love. Regardless of changing times and mores, love knows no age and never goes out of style.