A Magazine About Food, Art & Exchange In Midtown Kingston, Published By The Hudson Valley Current.

A History of Valentine’s Day

Published in Country Wisdom News, February 2012

Ever wonder exactly how the modern Valentine’s Day got its original start? Well, so have a lot of other people. The fact is, no one is exactly sure about the real origin behind the holiday, though there are a number of plausible theories. And no one is really sure about the actual St.Valentine after which the holiday is named. In fact, there were several different St.Valentines who were martyred by the Roman Empire in the early days of Christianity. 

One theory says that St.Valentine was a third-century priest, Valentine of Terni, who, in spite of an edict making it illegal, secretly married young couples and provided other sacraments. The Roman army apparently had this odd theory that preventing young soldiers from having sex would be good for combat readiness. Of course, the Romans had a thing for law and order, so Valentine and his secret nuptials were both brought to a swift and brutal end.

Other legends claim St.Valentine was a prison reformer—the Romans weren’t exactly known for their humane criminal justice system—who was himself thrown into jail. While incarcerated, the story goes, he sent the first-ever Valentine to his sweetheart, which was signed “From your Valentine,” a phrase that has a familiar, contemporary ring to it. He, too, was put to death for his troubles. 

But it was in the late 5th century that Pope Gelasius I established the Feast of St. Valentine. And it appears that the holiday remained simply a feast until sometime in the 14th century, when romance began to be linked with the holiday. Again, why this is the case remains a mystery. 

The French, it is believed, saw February 14 as the beginning of birds’ mating season, thus the day came to symbolize romance. February 14, coincidentally, was also considered by the Romans to be the beginning of spring, with all of its accompanying rebirth, symbolic and otherwise.

This sentiment also appears in late-medieval poet Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules (1382), when he wrote:

For this was on seynt Volantynys day /
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.

Which translates as (for those having trouble with the Middle English): 

For this was Saint Valentine’s Day / 

When every bird cometh there to choose his mate.

This verse is the first written occasion on record that acknowledges the romantic aspects of February 14.

Valentine’s Day really began to come into its own in late 18th century England, when a reference book entitled The Young Man’s Valentine Writer was published. Containing verse for the poetically-challenged, the book was designed to help men to find the right amorous words to express their affection to their sweethearts.

And it was the 19th century when the modern, paper-valentine card came into vogue. They became so popular, in fact, that the production of many of these cards took place in large factories, the captains of the Industrial Revolution coming to realize that there was good money in romance, a fact that continues to please Hallmark Cards. Whatever its origins, Valentine’s Day appears to be here to stay.