The little-known origins of Valentine’s Day

Why is February 14 celebrated as the day of love? The answer is not that buying cards needed a boost. And there’s actually more to the origin of Valentine’s Day than just candy, red roses and another reason to invite one’s favorite companion to dinner outside the home. 

Though my younger years were spent in college classrooms where the subject was world history, I do not recall a mention of St. Valentine. Maybe I drifted off on a warm spring afternoon at the University of Oregon when the subject of saints by name of Valentine came up. Fact is, Valentine’s Day has its origin in legend. One legend informs us that a 3rd century emperor, Marcus Aurelius Claudius Gothicus, also known a Claudius II, found it difficult to find men to join his army because, he believed, the men around were too attached to their wives to fight wars. 

He, of course, chose the “logical” thing to do: he banned all marriages. Yet, Claudius II ignored that one powerful factor that we know motivates humans to move mountains for one another. What’s that? You guessed it—love.

Meanwhile, there was a local man by the name of St. Valentine. Valentine viewed the emperor’s action as a profound injustice and thereby decided to do something about it. Thumbing his nose at the emperor, he went about the land officiating at the marriage of young couples. Valentine may have hoped to keep his activity a secret. However, when Claudius II discovered Valentine’s treachery he had him arrested, beaten and had him hanged.

The more one researches the subject, the more there is to learn. One of the most popular symbols of Valentine’s Day is Cupid, the Roman god of love. There’s also the tale of another Valentine, a Christian priest, who was jailed for performing miracles. From his prison cell, it’s alleged he wrote to a local lady he’d cured of blindness. Legend has it, he signed his letter, “From your Valentine.” 

The ancient Romans also celebrated the feast of Luperalia, a spring festival held on the 15th of February whose reported events are too lewd to describe in a family newspaper. With the coming into prominence of Christianity, the holiday moved to February 14. Ultimately, a few hundred years ago, Christians came to celebrate February 14 as a special day in recognition of early Christian martyrs named Valentine. 

The custom of choosing a sweetheart on this date spread throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. Later, Valentine’s Day found its way to the American colonies. Then, too, throughout much of history during the last two millennia, people believed birds picked their mates for them on February 14. Whatever Valentine’s Day has brought to humanity, in 496 AD, Pope Gelasius declared February 14 as “Valentine’s Day.” It’s never been recognized an official holiday in America. While some agree that the greeting card idea had its origin from a Valentine’s jail cell in olden times.

Yes, my life is richer and more fulfilling because I am a most-enrapturing Valentine. Speaking from the heart about things I love beyond my personal love interest, I confess an enduring affection for the finest heart-felt music: the treasure of romance in the musical masterpieces produced by George Gershwin. For now and our future, love, along with job opportunities and human dignity are the fundamentals for survival in America with emphasis on expressing love, as a tool of universal communication, every way, every day, not just reserved for February 14 as love cannot be overstated.