The Myths and Legends Surrounding the Real St. Valentine’s Day

Helen Flatley
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St. Valentine. Photo by cafecesura CC BY 2.0

St. Valentine’s Day is a modern celebration of love and commercialism, in which couples exchange gifts and cards to demonstrate just how much they care for one another.

Red roses, chocolates and stuffed toys bearing soppy messages fill our stores and brighten up the late winter gloom, as the 14th of February approaches.

Young people celebrating Valentine’s day.

However, the ancient origins of St. Valentine’s Day bear little resemblance to this modern festival of love and affection. Although St. Valentine’s Day is linked to the early Christian cult of the martyred saint, Valentinus, there are a significant number of different theories about how this ancient martyr became a symbol of love and affection.

According to NPR, our contemporary St. Valentine’s Day may actually be linked to a violent Roman festival called Lupercalia.

The ceremony of Lupercalia.

Every year, from February 13th to 15th, the streets of Rome erupted in a riotous, frenzied festival. The men of the city would begin by sacrificing goats and dogs, as part of a ritual designed to purify society of evil spirits. It was thought that this purification would boost fertility among the women of the city.

After the ritual sacrifice and feasting, the men would cut long strips from the skins of the sacrificed animals, and run through the streets of Rome, in an anti-clockwise direction around the Palatine Hill.

Women would line the streets, holding out their hands as the men whipped them with the strips of skin, in the hope that this would help them to conceive.

Lupercalia most likely derives from the word lupus which means wolf.

Lupercalia was a violent, alcohol-fueled, pagan celebration. Much later — in the 5th century — Pope Gelasius I wrote a scathing critique of the festival, banning it from the city entirely.

He was concerned about the continued celebration of pagan festivals in the Christian city, and wanted to abolish any holidays that weren’t explicitly associated with the new Christian religion.

According to NPR, in order to achieve this, Gelasius replaced the festival of Lupercalia with the Christian feast of St. Valentine.

This liturgical feast day was designed to honor one, or possibly two, young men named Valentinus who were murdered by the Roman authorities in the 3rd century, after they refused to give up their Christian faith.

By connecting Lupercalia to Valentine, Gelasius is thought to have originated the link between the early Christian martyr and ideas of love, marriage and fertility.

St. Valentine’s Day by Horsley.

However, the notion that Gelasius replaced Lupercalia with the feast of St. Valentine is a popular misconception. In fact, although the pope outlawed Lupercalia, there is no evidence to suggest that he connected it with the holy feast of the martyrdom of Valentine.

According to historian Henry Ansgar Kelly, the association of the feast of St. Valentine with love and romance was a much later innovation, occurring in the later Middle Ages.

Writers such as Geoffrey Chaucer linked the festival to the ideals of courtly love and affection, fueled by a popular medieval story that St. Valentine had been martyred because he was marrying young Christian couples in secret.

Saint Valentine of Terni and his disciples.

As part of the ceremony, he is said to have cut hearts from pieces of parchment and given them to the men as a reminder of their wedding vows and of God’s love.

It is also possible that, during this period, Valentine became associated with St. Gallatin, a Norman saint whose name roughly translated to “lover of women”, according to NPR.

Shrine of St. Valentine in Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church in Dublin, Ireland. Photo by blackfish CC BY-SA 3.0

Yet another popular medieval legend holds that whilst in prison, Valentine miraculously healed the blind daughter of his jailer.

He allegedly left her a note on the day of his execution, signed “your Valentine”, thereby originating the tradition of card giving on Valentine’s Day. Many of these myths had medieval origins, and were embedded in a wider tradition of courtly love and romantic poetry.

Valentine card

However, the real transformation of St. Valentine’s Day into the modern festival of love occurred in the 16th and 17th centuries, when writers such as Shakespeare popularized the connection.

The tradition of exchanging gifts and cards on this day became increasingly popular, and it became known as a romantic celebration between couples.

The commercialization of popular folk holidays in the 19th and early 20th centuries cemented the Valentine’s Day tradition in Western Europe and the United States.

Red rose with red boxed gift.

It is now known as a romantic celebration of love, in which couples in the United States will spend around $20 billion on cards, gifts, celebratory dinners and extravagant gestures for their loved ones.

Read another story from us: The Oldest Valentine’s Day Poem Came from a Dank Cell in the Tower of London

Although the origins of Valentine’s Day remain somewhat obscured by countless medieval myths and legends, one thing is clear: this is a festival that has certainly come a long way from its austere, ancient roots.