How Did Valentine’s Day Start?

Written by : Spenser White

This week sees husbands and boyfriends frantically searching for the proper gifts to give their significant others. Women wait less than patiently to see what their husbands got them for the holiday. Men, however, dread it: Valentine’s Day. Why do we have a specific day to celebrate the loves in our lives? Why can’t everyone celebrate their own love on their own day? Why do we all go to Italian restaurants on that day?

Celebrations of Valentine’s Day have been recorded in Europe by at least 465 A.D. Tradition states that in that year, Pope Gelasius declared an end to the Roman pagan fertility festival, Lupercalia. To replace it, he officially instituted the Festival of St. Valentine. Usually, popes codify practices already present in Christian populations, so it is not difficult to assume that Valentine’s Day celebrations existed before Gelasius instituted it.

Now, why are there Valentine’s Day celebrations? The day is named after a Roman martyr named St. Valentine. Legend has it that Valentine served as a bishop in Rome during the reign of Claudius, ca. 250 A.D. There were quite a few Emperors named Claudius, so this Claudius is denoted as “the Cruel.” It is thought the title came from his time in the Roman army, where it is reported he had a tenacious temperament. When he became emperor, Claudius decided to forbid marriage between young people, for his misguided theory was that unmarried men fight better than married men.

Bishop Valentine, horrified at this blatant overstep of state power, defied the order. He was soon discovered and sent to prison. Tradition states that his jailer had a blind daughter, Julia. Valentine discovered this and began to pray for her. Tradition then disagrees on what happened next. Either Valentine met her in prison, Claudius demanded Valentine to restore her sight in his presence, or Julia and Valentine began to correspond. Tradition does agree that Julia somehow received her sight again. My favorite explanation is that Valentine enclosed a crocus in his last letter, apologizing for his approaching execution and saying she will never see him. When Julia opened the letter for someone to read to her, she looked at the flower and for the first time in her life, saw it.

Claudius ordered Valentine executed on the 14th of February, the Roman fertility festival of Lupercalia, for special spite. Eventually, Claudius repealed the evil law, and marriage was reinstituted in the Roman empire. Roman Christians celebrated the memory of St. Valentine, probably as a way to redeem the depraved festival of Lupercalia. Over the years, Lupercalia has disappeared, but the name, if not the memory, of Valentine endures.

So, now you know the origin of Valentine’s Day. It began with Valentine as a civil rebel against an evil empire. It then evolved into the redemption of a debauched celebration, with Christians showing the culture true, godly love. Remember that, men, when you are shopping. Remember that, ladies, when you anticipate your day. We are celebrating Christian marriage, and that is the important part, regardless of how your day goes. I don’t know why we eat Italian food, though. Maybe because Valentine was Roman? We are, after all, also celebrating the beheading of a Christian Saint. Try to forget that fact when you eat your spaghetti.