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7 Strange Facts About St. Valentine’s Day

Love it or hate it, ‘tis the season for romance. And in celebration of this year’s holiday, we’re going to let you in on elements of the true (mostly bloody and horrifying) backstory to the modern Valentine’s Day.

Who Was that Valentine?

In the Catholic Church, St. Valentine is a somewhat problematic figure. That there was a Christian named Valentine who was martyred sometime in the third century is undisputed, but the details of Valentine’s life (and whether or not the stories attributed to him were based on two different men) are somewhat confusing. There are two key components to Valentine’s story: the first relates to his imprisonment by the Roman Judge Asterius. When Valentine professed the power of Jesus, Asterius challenged Valentine to heal his blind daughter. Valentine prayed for the girl and her blindness was cured, causing Asterius to convert to Christianity and to release other Christian prisoners. The second part of Valentine’s story relates to Emperor Claudius Gothicus (Claudius II), who had banned Roman soldiers from marrying during wartime. Valentine was imprisoned (and here the accounts conflict) for some combination of the following crimes: marrying soldiers during wartime, marrying Christians, aiding persecuted Christians, and/or refusing to sacrifice to pagan gods. When Valentine tried to convert Claudius himself, the furious Emperor promptly ordered Valentine’s gory execution. According to legend, on the day of his death, Valentine sent a letter to Asterius’ daughter signed “Your Valentine.” Another legend says that after his burial, a pink almond tree miraculously burst into flower (which first associated the color pink with St. Valentine.)

your st. valentine

Due to Valentine’s association with clandestine marriages, Christians in the Middle Ages designated St. Valentine the Patron of Courtly Romance. In 496, Pope Gelasius marked Valentine’s Day as February 14th, to provide a Christian alternative to the popular pagan fertility festival, Lupercalia.

Lupercalia, and the Origins of February

The origins of this holiday may pre-date the Roman empire, but the general consensus is that it was an annual festival (held on what is now February 15th) in the city of Rome to thwart evil spirits and purify the city, ensuring health and fertility for the year to come.

According to myth, Rome was founded by Romulus, one of a pair of twins who were nursed by a she-wolf (Lupa), and because the wolf was sacred to Rome, the Lupercalia festivities where held in three central locations (the Lupercal cave, the Palatine Hill, and the Forum) all closely associated with the story of Romulus. The priests of Lupercalia, the Luperci, traditionally sacrificed a goat and a dog as part of an elaborate ritual. At the conclusion, the skins of the sacrifices were cut into strips, and the Luperci would run (naked) anticlockwise around the whole city, whipping the citizens with the bloody thongs. (Women who were struck by the Luperci were expected to have an easier time becoming pregnant and delivering children.) The thongs carried by the Luperci were called “februum,” and the festival was later known as “Februa” or “Februatus,” from which we get the modern month of “February.”

Lupercalia, and the Origins of February

Who Will Be My Valentine?

According to the 18th-century historian Alban Butler, as part of the Lupercalia festival, unmarried women could submit their names to a lottery dedicated to Juno Februata (Juno the Fructifier, Goddess of Women and Marriage). Unmarried men would draw the lots and would be paired with the women for the year to come. (Some of these pairings resulted in marriages, but the gist was more “Ancient Tinder” than “Ancient E-Harmony.”) However, later scholars have argued that Butler provided no proof that the custom was associated with Lupercalia and suggest that the drawing was actually an early Medieval invention.

18th-century historian Alban Butler, as part of the Lupercalia festival, unmarried women could submit their names to a lottery

However it got started, the Roman Catholic Church created an alternative Valentine’s Day tradition by encouraging good Christians (men and women) to draw lots inscribed with the names of saints, whom the Christians were expected to emulate for the coming year. As an alternative to the choose-your-lover-for-a-year drawings, it fell a little flat, and so young Medieval men took advantage of the holiday’s association with Courtly Romance to send admiring letters to women as part of the Valentine’s Day Celebration.

Medieval men took advantage of the holiday’s association with Courtly Romance to send admiring letters to women

This practice evolved into a compromise, wherein unmarried men and women would submit their names to a lottery. The names would be drawn in pairs, and the man declared the woman’s protector under the rules of chivalry for the coming year. Her name or favor would be pinned to his shirt (hence the phrase, “wearing your heart on your sleeve”). By the seventeenth century, the practice of “chivalrous protection” was distilled down to some kind of gift, given by the men to the women chosen by lot (think “Secret Santa,” but in February). The lottery eventually fell apart, and the gifts became more personal. If you’re looking for a traditional gift idea--gloves were especially popular because they were considered lucky: “Good morrow, Valentine, I go today/To wear for you what you must pay/A pair of gloves next Easter Day.”

Valentines for the Birds

Geoffrey Chaucer famously penned the first preserved association between Valentine’s Day and romantic love in 1382, in his poem Parliament of Fowls, which describes an assembly of birds that occurred on “Saint Valentine’s Day,/When every bird cometh there to choose his mate.” And, while the Middle Ages wasn’t known for its strict ornithological accuracy, the date sounds more plausible if you remember that the Julian calendar would have put February 14th at what we would (using the Gregorian calendar) call February 23rd, which is late enough that some birds would have begun nesting in England. (Chaucer may also have been referring to the feast of St. Valentine of Genoa, whose holiday was celebrated in early May.)

associated bird love with valentine's day

The association of romance with birds remained popular in folk tradition, and a Medieval maiden could find out about her future husband based on the first bird that she saw on Valentine’s Day morning. A dove signified a good man; a goldfinch, a rich man; a blue tit, a happy man; a robin, a sailor; a blackbird, a clergyman; a crossbill, an argumentative man. But if she first saw a woodpecker, she’d have no husband at all.

Men, sadly, had no such prognostication.

Oldest Valentine

In the murderous, backstabbing, politically vicious days of the fifteenth century, fifteen-year-old Charles, Duke of Orléans (nephew to the French King Charles VI) was married to eleven-year-old Bonne of Armagnac to solidify a political alliance against the Duke of Burgundy. Caught up in the political infighting of the French court (and their on-and-off wars with England), six years later, Charles was one of the many French knights captured by Henry V’s English forces at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Deemed too politically important for ransom, Charles was sent to the Tower of London, where he wrote what is now considered the oldest surviving Valentine to his young wife back in France.

Duke of Orléans (nephew to the French King Charles VI) wrote the oldest historical valentine ever recorded

Unsurprisingly, it isn’t as cheery as most modern Hallmark inventions:
I am already sick of love,
My very gentle Valentine
Since for me you were born too soon,
And I, for you, was born too late.
God forgives him who has estranged
       Me from you for the whole year.
I am already sick of love,
My very gentle Valentine.

Charles and Bonne were never reunited, as Charles spent the next 25 years a prisoner of England. However, they continued to exchange letters until her death.

That Crazy Romantic, Henry VIII

There’s a widespread internet story attributing the formation of Valentine’s Day to a Royal Charter issued by Henry VIII on February 14, 1537. The only problem is that this oddly specific factoid doesn’t seem to have any historical basis. Although Henry VIII loved being in love, his love was notoriously fickle. The closest verifiable association that he has with the holiday was the execution of his wife Katherine Howard and former sister-in-law Jane Boleyn on February 13th, 1542.

henry the eighth crazy as hell for valentine's day

The Business of Valentines

The civil exchange of gifts and cards for Valentine’s Day continued in England through the Victorian Era, where many of the homemade creations were lavishly adorned with roses, lace, hearts, cupids, embroidery, and pressed flowers. Like today’s Valentines, some were romantic, others funny, some risqué, some rude, and a few platonic.

england london kept the valentine's day going

It took several centuries for Valentine’s Day to catch on in the United States, largely because the Puritans had little patience for frivolity or earthy romance. (A sentiment widely mocked in the recent “Puritan Valentine’s” series by College Humor.)

college puritans making fun of valentine's day

The individual credited with the advent of the Valentine’s Greeting Card industry in the United States is Esther Howland, who launched a small homemade card business in the 1840s and grew her fledgling business into a greeting-card empire worth over $100,000 annually (roughly $2.7 million in today’s currency).

united states first established valentine's day card company

A Holiday for the Ages

So, there you have it. Whether your sentiments are romantic, spiritual, murderous, chivalrous, or purely economic…Valentine’s Day has something for you!

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