How Valentine’s Day evolved through the ages

Andrew Shermoen

The history of the confusing holiday of Valentine’s Day is woven through the centuries. The holiday is the result of warring religions, 14th century poetry and the capitalism of the free market. That made Valentine’s Day what it is today.

Many scholars believe that Pope Gelasius I, the 49th pontiff according to the Annario Pontifico, declared Feb. 14 as a feast day for Saint Valentine in the late 400s. This was likely a gesture with the intention of removing an ancient Roman fertility festival known as Lupercalia. Many historians disagree with this assessment of Gelasius’s actions, but the feast day was introduced during this time by the pope, and the date was chosen to coincide with the date of his death.

Saint Valentine of Terni is almost an enigma. Efforts to properly identify him and his history have been all but naught, and the actions that are attributed to him are vague and very generic among all saints. He restored a girl’s eyesight, converted a Roman judge to Catholicism, and was executed on the orders of Emperor Claudius II for professing his faith in Jesus.

Due to his mysterious nature, Valentine became a blank slate. A man who died for his faith and could be easily attributed to any patronage placed upon him. Sometime in the 14th century the man known as Saint Valentine began to have his legacy and his feast day slowly become synonymous with courtly love, marriages and affianced couples, also oddly enough he was bestowed as patron of beekeepers, plague and epilepsy. It seems odd because almost no stories featuring Valentine actually show him committing any acts that triumphantly praise the power of love. Still, his feast day is one of the most popular holidays in the world and is used to celebrate loved ones.

This was likely the doing of legendary English poet Geoffrey Chaucer. In a poem commemorating the engagement of King Richard II and Anne of Bohemia; Chaucer referenced Saint Valentine’s Day as a time when “foul choose their mate.” Thus, the beloved royal couple became synonymous with this date despite the fact that history has no idea if the proposal even happened near Valentine’s Day. Even still, Chaucer’s popular poem found hundreds of citizens using the feast day to commemorate their loved ones.

Valentine’s Day has only surged in popularity since then. It has become a beacon for couples deeply entranced in the overpowering sensation of love. Much of Hallmark’s entire wealth is built on the backbone of this holiday and the roots of the holiday as a Roman fertility festival have returned, with the Roman deity Cupid now being the mascot of the holiday. The history of Valentine’s Day has one of the oddest origin stories ever conceived; it features a secretive saint, the father of English literature, and a vindictive pope. Perhaps with a glimpse into history we can all learn to appreciate Valentine’s Day a little bit more.