Q&A of the Day – What’s the history behind Valentine’s Day?
Each day I feature a listener question sent by one of these methods.
Today’s entry: Who do we have to blame for Valentine’s Day?
Bottom Line: This cracked me up so felt inclined to run with it today. The short answer is a combination of the Roman Empire and a Pope. There’s a good chance you’re familiar with the name St. Valentine. That’s in part because the day itself is known as “St. Valentine’s Day” officially. As secular and commercial interests have influenced the observation of the day, you seldom hear it referred to as such in today’s society – however the origin is rooted in a religious context - though it started as a pagan Roman festival.
Prior to Constantine’s reign and recognition of Christianity within the Roman Empire, a festival called Lupercalia took place in mid-February. It was a fertility festival in which women were issued to men through a lottery system. Not kidding... Valentine’s Day’s origins were literally a pagan fertility festival in which men won women through a lottery system so they could go procreate. Pretty far cry from a day of romance, right? Anyway, how did it take such a dramatic turn which incorporated a saint?
As Constantine brought Christianity, specifically Catholicism, into the Roman Empire in in the 4th century, the festival began a series of reformations, which included the end of the lottery procreation system, and by the 5th century, under guidance from Pope Gelasius I, the festival was replaced altogether with St. Valentine’s Day. What isn’t clear to this day is exactly who Valentine was. We know he was either a priest or a bishop, however there are three possible Valentine’s documented in history which fit the known description of St. Valentine. Anyway, all three possible Valentines were associated with extraordinary acts of love and kindness. Hense the evolution of the day from lottery women and procreation to one of romance. Over the next 1,000 years little changed – however in the 1500’s a new tradition was born when the traditional of sending a “valentine” or love letter began to take hold.
By the 1700’s the tradition spread throughout Europe and began to revert back to its pagan roots as the introduction of Cupid onto Valentine’s Cards were created. Cupid is the Roman god of love. So, in many respects Valentine’s Day has come full circle. It was born out of desire to reform a pagan festival full of debauchery and human rights abuses. Ironically, through secular society and commercialization its current tenants and icons more closely resemble its origins as Lupercalia than its successor – St. Valentine’s Day. And will you ever view Cupid the same way again?
Photo Credit: Getty Images