Until 1969, the holiday we celebrate on February 14 was known as St. Valentine’s Day and it was an official Roman Catholic feast day. The feast commemorated one—or possibly two or three—men named Valentine who were said to have been martyred by the Roman emperor Claudius II. This St. Valentine was supposed to have conducted wedding ceremonies for soldiers—which were forbidden by the emperor—in secret. This explains the connection between the name Valentine and romantic love. St. Valentine is also said to have fallen in love with a girl and to have sent letters to her while he was in prison. The Romans seem to have been a very literate society if their death tributes and curse tablets are any indication, so it’s hard to believe Valentine was the first guy to send a love letter. But he may have been the first one to sign a note “from your Valentine.”

While there is some evidence two men named Valentine were executed by the emperor on February 14 of different years, there is precious little evidence about who these men were or what they actually did. All the love, marriage, and message stories are nothing more than legend. Eventually, the Catholic Church eventually decided they couldn’t quite justify holding a feast in his/their honor every year. However, the church did not remove Valentine’s saintly status when they took his day off the religious calendar.

Origin of the Holiday is Not Very Romantic

Like so many religious holidays, the feast of St. Valentine’s Day was imposed on top of a pagan celebration. The Romans used to celebrate a feast called Lupercalia where men would slaughter goats and dogs and then whip naked women with the bloody animal hides to increase their fertility. (It was supposed to increase the fertility of the women, not the animals, who at this point lacked the ability to procreate, or the men, who were often too drunk to procreate effectively by this point either.)

Lupercalia celebrations also included a sort-of matchmaking lottery. Women’s names were put in a jar and selected by young men who were then assigned as their partner for the rest of the ceremony.

Over the centuries, the feast evolved/devolved (depending on your beliefs) into an all-purpose drunken party, although there was still some emphasis on love and fertility. The Normans also celebrated a feast called “Galatin’s Day” sounds a lot like Valentine’s Day. The word Galatin refers to “one who loves women.”

Pressure to Give Tokens in the Middle Ages

English writers Chaucer and Shakespeare contributed to the romanticization of Valentine’s Day as a day focused on love between people rather than between people and wine. At the time Chaucer wrote “The Parliament of Fowls,” linking love with Valentine’s Day, February 14 was also considered the first day of spring and it was the start of bird mating season. Chaucer’s work is about birds gathering to select their mates, but the birds exhibit qualities that are more human than avian.

In Middle Ages, it is said that lovers often made paper tokens to exchange on Valentine’s Day. (This would have been only for the wealthy, I assume, because paper was pretty rare and expensive back in those days.) The oldest Valentine note that still survives was a poem the Duke of Orleans wrote to his wife in 1415 while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London after the Battle of Agincourt. King Henry V supposedly hired a writer to copy this romantic Valentine’s gesture to impress Catherine of Valois, who eventually became his wife.

The holiday did not become commercial until the 19th Century when companies began to market and sell prepared Valentine’s Cards. In 1868, Richard Cadbury is said to marketed the first heart-shaped box of chocolate.

The Bird Might Be a Better Symbol for the Day

Now that I know the connection between the birds of spring and the romantic notions of Valentine’s Day, I think I would prefer to see a colorful bird rather than a the typical red heart shape to symbolize the day. The birds symbolize the hope of new life in the spring. The heart shape just reminds me of my tendency to make myself sick on chocolate far too often.

Happy First Ancient Day of Spring!

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The attractive skull at the top is on display in a Roman church and it may–or may not–be the head of a martyred saint named Valentine.

Many of the books I’ve written have been marketed by my publishers as romance, but the stories tend to focus too much on people making mistakes on their own to be true modern romance (in which all the mistakes are committed in the name of love.) In my story Deceptive Behavior, my characters learn a lot about the wrong way to pursue love and marriage, so maybe that’s my most romantic book.

If you’d like to learn more about the strange holiday we celebrate today, I’ve also written blogs on making chocolate, eating chocolate, and where that heart-shaped symbol came from.