On the 14th February every year we celebrate Valentine's Day, giving chocolates and flowers, and all sorts of wonderful Valentines Day gift ideas to the people we love or admire. It is an accepted tradition in today's modern society and means big business for card suppliers and gift retailers all over the world. After Christmas, it is one of the biggest events of the year, and people go all out to celebrate. But we are going to take a look back through history to see where Valentine's Day came from and how it developed into the celebration we enjoy today.
As for the origin of Valentines Day, there are varying beliefs as to how the festival has developed and who St Valentine actually was. Firstly, let's look at the festival: it is widely believed it has strong links to a heathen festival called Lupercalia. This was a festival celebrating one of the many heathen Roman gods named Lupercus. It is said when Rome was first founded, it was surrounded by wilderness: woods, forests, large areas of uninhabited land, thus bringing with it copious amounts of wild beasts such as wolves.
Lupercus was the God of the shepherds, and he watched over them and their flocks to protect them from the many wolves that surrounded the area. Therefore, every year in spring time, these shepherds would hold a festival to thank the God who helped them so much throughout the year. Back then the calendar year was slightly different and spring came around the middle of February.
The exact origin of the date is not known but, as mentioned above, the festival of Lupercalia was held during the middle of February every year, so it was likely that when an official date occurred it would be the 15th February. Every year therefore on this day the priests of the local area would gather to thank the god Lupercus in the cave of Lupercal. This is where (legend has it) that the founders of Rome were nursed by a young wolf. There is strong evidence that this was a very important date throughout history, with records showing that Marc Antony chose the Lupercalia Festival (15th Feb) to crown Julius Caesar. And it is also around the time of the Chinese New Year.
With heathen festivals come many heathen traditions; some that are connected with this festival include youths of noble birth running through the streets with just thongs made from goatskin, and young women being whipped because they believed it meant they wouldn't be barren. Other traditions include youths having to smile for the duration of the entire day; the sacrifice of both a goat and a dog, and then the bloody knife being smeared on the forehead of young women before being wiped off with the wool of a sheep dipped in milk. There are a huge volume of rituals related to this festival, but the above seem to be the most widely accepted.
Even after Rome became a powerful empire, the tradition of this festival still lived on, and when the Romans invaded countries such as France and England they brought these traditions and customs with them - every year celebrating this day of Lupercalia, undergoing many of the above rituals.
So that was the Festival from which our Valentine's Day originates. But what about St Valentine? We hear many stories of who he was, and what he did, which isn't surprising because, according to scholars, there are three notable St Valentines who are all connected with the 14th February. One was a Roman Priest, the other a Bishop of Interamna and the other lived and died in Africa. It seems plausible to rule out the last one; however the other two still hold some question marks above them.
If we take a closer look at the priest in Rome we can see that he became famous for offering his advice to all the local citizens. Everyone sought out St Valentine to help with their problems, dilemmas and often just to hear him speak. During a war, the emperor of the time Claudius, was not happy with the amount of men who were unwilling to fight - he believed it was to do with marriage. The young men were falling in love and were not willing to fight in case they never saw their wives again. So he banned all marriages and engagements from then on. This whole situation upset Valentine and when a young couple came to him secretly and asked him to marry them he agreed, and this continued until he was inevitably discovered by the Emperor. Valentine was thrown into prison where he died on the 14th February 270 AD.
However it is more widely believed that the St Valentine we celebrate is the Bishop. He was a martyr and died for being a Christian. It is said that he was thrown into prison after helping some other Christian martyrs to escape and, in prison, he cured the prison keeper's daughter of blindness. When the emperor heard of this he ordered him to be beheaded. But on the morning of the execution the keeper's daughter received a letter signed: 'from your Valentine'. Although these two stories are both plausible, it is also widely believed that they are in fact the same person!
St Valentines Day then developed from there on. It is believed that in medieval times, every year on the 14th February, names of young bachelors and maidens were put into a box. When they were drawn out, they exchanged gifts and the girl was then the boy's valentine for a year - he had to attend to and protect her. This ritual was considered a good omen in love and often resulted in a wedding between the two.
It would appear the tradition of writing poetry on Valentines Day stems from when a young French duke was kept in the tower of London after being taken in battle. He wrote poems to his wife every day and these were considered as the first real valentines. There are about 60 examples left today and they are on display at the British Museum.
It is much later that flowers become associated with this day. From when the daughter of a King of France threw a party to honour St Valentine, she said every boy had to give the girl chosen as his Valentine a bunch of flowers. Then the tradition of cards developed further as, in the 17th century, mass produced cards, printed with verses and poems, became available to buy. It is however widely believed that the rapid reduction of postal rates in the 19th century led to anonymous cards being sent to admirers; postage was extremely expensive before this.
So, it would appear that there is a large amount of mystery shrouding the development of the day we celebrate as Valentines Day. We can be fairly sure it originates from the heathen festival of Lupercalia, and that the St Valentine we talk of was either a Roman Priest or an Italian Bishop (or maybe these are the same person). But the smaller customs seem to have sprung up from odd events across Europe throughout the last few hundred years. It therefore seems that all of these events have come together to create the day we know as St Valentine's day on the 14th February every year.