Today in History: Valentine’s Day

The history of Valentine’s Day is not what you would expect.

Today, Valentine's Day is celebrated all around the world, but its origin is very unique.

Today might have positive connotations for some, or negative ones for others. Whether or not you get a kick out of Valentine’s Day, it’s here, and you may find yourself wondering, who’s responsible for my feeling of obligation to buy chocolate and flowers for my significant other? Who do I have to thank for a lovely opportunity to create precious moments of romance in the dreary slog of late winter? Who’s making me feel so poorly for not being in a relationship on this particular day?

The answer to all of those questions is Hallmark.

Let’s get a little deeper into it, though:

On this day in A.D. 269 (1,751 years ago) St. Valentine of Rome was buried near the Tiber River. He was a clergyman during the third century who ministered to Christians oppressed under Roman rule. Two other sainted Valentines exist although, depending on the source, some or all Saint Valentines are not mentioned in many lists of martyrs. Surrounding our particular saint, Valentine of Rome, are several inconsistencies in regards to the reason and nature of his death. Many hagiographies say that Valentine was presented to the Roman emperor Claudius II to face judgement for evangelization. The account states that Claudius actually didn’t mind him until Valentine tried to evangelize him too; at that point, he was given the option to renounce his faith or be clubbed to death. Needless to say, Valentine was martyred, and the Feast of St. Valentine has been celebrated on Feb. 14 since A.D. 496.

However, it wasn’t really celebrated as a day of love until Geoffrey Chaucer, regarded by many as the greatest English poet of the entire Middle Ages, wrote a poem somewhere between 1380 to 1390 called “The Parlement of Foules.” It depicts a time of year in which the birds of springtime come together to breed. One passage reads, translated from Middle English: “For this was on St. Valentine’s Day / When every bird cometh there to choose his mate.” 

The funny thing about this is that many scholars note the common reader’s lack of criticism surrounding the mention of St. Valentine in the poem, stating that it’s more likely that due to the change in measured equinoxes and the shift to the Gregorian calendar, the “St. Valentine’s Day” that Chaucer refers to would actually translate to Feb. 23 or May 3 in today’s calendar system. 

Feb. 14 is supposedly first seen properly celebrated as a festival of love in around 1400, when the French elite formed the Court of Love, declaring in their published charter that the day is to be celebrated upon with romantic festivity. However, no records other than the charter prove the existence of this court. It was likely the fantasy of the queen of France as she desperately tried to avoid thinking about the current plague at the time. 

Since then, romantic poetry labeled as “Valentines” became more and more popular in France and throughout Europe, becoming a more public phenomenon in the late 18th century. From there, the subject grew in popularity. 

Today, Valentine’s Day is celebrated in many places in the world. Despite being very Eurocentric in origin, Valentine’s Day and variations thereupon are celebrated on every continent. 

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