March 12, 2018
Wellcome Images
Every February, people present their significant other with chocolate, flowers and cards. Grocery stores and shopping malls are covered in red or pink hearts, and there are a number of drawings of cupid floating around. Children buy packets of Valentines to hand out to friends and classmates, and Mom and Dad get a babysitter so they can enjoy a romantic candlelight dinner at a nice restaurant. 

Valentine’s Day has long been a celebration of love. Those who are single on Valentine’s Day sometimes joke that they are celebrating “Singles Awareness Day,” whereas those who had a recent breakup often grab either the ice cream or the beer and bury a broken heart in sugar and bad movies. Those without a partner make it a point not to go out to dinner on February 14 because they know that all the restaurants will be full. Valentine’s Day is so commonly known to be a day of love that few people ever give much thought to its origins. It simply is what it is. Holidays do not appear out of the ether, though. They originate with some memorable event or time in history. So, where did Valentine’s Day come from?

The short answer is that no one is sure. There are a number of different legends that surround the beginning of Valentine’s Day, but a number of these origin stories surround a Catholic saint named Valentine or Valentinus. So, it is likely that there is at least some truth in the idea that Valentine’s Day is based on a Catholic martyr named Valentine. The problem is that the Catholic Church recognizes at least three different St. Valentines, and all three of them were martyred. 

The first St. Valentine that the Catholic Church recognizes is said to have been a priest during the third century. He lived in Rome under the rule of Emperor Claudius II. According to legend, Emperor Claudius II decided that men without families or wives made for better soldiers. As such, marriage was outlawed for men of a certain age. Valentine felt that this was horribly unjust and defied the decree. Valentine continued to act as a priest and performed secret marriage rites for young men. These marriages then allowed young men to escape being drafted into the Roman army. Valentine’s luck could not last forever, though, and eventually his actions were discovered. Valentine was arrested, and Claudius had him executed. 

The second St. Valentine was also a Roman Christian who defied the emperor. In this story, Valentine was attempting to convert people to Christianity. In third century Rome, this was a serious crime. Christianity was not welcome in Roman society, and Christians were horribly persecuted. This did not deter Valentine, however, and he continued to gain converts. In addition to trying to convert Romans to Christianity, Valentine would enter prisons and marry the Christians who were held captive there. According to legend, Emperor Claudius II was fond of Valentine and so was willing to turn a blind eye to the other man’s activities. Valentine, however, became overconfident and attempted to convert Claudius himself to Christianity. Claudius was enraged and ordered Valentine to renounce his faith on the pain of death. Valentine refused and chose to be martyred instead. Valentine was executed on February 14 outside Flaminian Gate for his crimes.

The third St. Valentine that is recognized by the Catholic Church is probably the most famous one. He is also the Valentine that is most closely associated with the sort of love story that is so popular on modern Valentine’s Day. There are several versions of the legend associated with the third St. Valentine. The first version begins with Valentine helping Christians escape Roman prisons. Christians who were imprisoned were often tortured, and Valentine could not stand to leave them in such conditions. Valentine, however, was caught and thrown in prison himself. While he was held captive, he was visited by the jailor’s daughter. The two fell in love, but the woman could do nothing to stop Valentine’s pending execution. The star crossed lovers were doomed. Just before his death, Valentine wrote his love a final letter, and he signed it “from your Valentine.” This phrase remained popular due to the romantic and tragic connotations, though eventually the tragedy was lost and the phrase became a declaration of love.

The second version of this Valentine’s story begins when a judge named Asterius decided to put Valentine’s faith to the test. Asterius called Valentine to his home where the judge brought out his daughter who was blind. Asterius told Valentine to restore his daughter’s sight. If Valentine was successful, the judge vowed to do whatever Valentine wished. Valentine agreed and restored her vision. Asterius was awed. He broke all the idols in his house and fasted for three days before he had all 44 members of his household baptized. Asterius also freed all his Christian prisoners, but Valentine ran afoul of Emperor Claudius and was arrested. The day of his execution, Valentine left a note for Asterius’ daughter signed “your Valentine.”

While it is uncertain which of these Valentines was the martyr who inspired Valentine’s Day, it is clear that he was a real person. Archaeologists discovered a Roman catacomb and an ancient church dedicated to St. Valentine. Similarly, Pope Gelasius set February 14 as the date for the celebration of St. Valentine’s martyrdom. 

St. Valentine was one of the most popular saints during the Middle Ages, and he has continued to influence the modern world. People today send more than 150 million Valentine’s Day cards in February, and tens of millions of dollars are spent on chocolate, flowers and jewelry meant for significant others. While these may be strange ways to celebrate a day originally dedicated to a saint’s rather gruesome death, St. Valentine would likely approve. After all, if the legends are to be believed, he risked everything for love. He would approve of a day meant to spread even more love.