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Where Did Valentine’s Day Come From?

Have you ever wondered just who St. Valentine was and how he managed to get a holiday with so much discounted chocolate available named after him?  Well, you’ll still be wondering, because so are historians, but they have some good guesses.


One story suggests that he was a priest in Rome in the third century AD. Valentine was a huge fan of marriage, so when the Emperor Claudius II banned it Valentine went around arranging them in secret anyway. This was before marriage certificates or any other documentation were as common or necessary as they are today.


When Claudius found out, Valentine was thrown in jail. He proceeded to fall in love with the jailer’s daughter, and on February 14th sent her a love letter that he signed “from your Valentine.”


While compelling, this story is hard to prove definitively either way. Some compelling evidence against it? We didn’t start using the Gregorian calendar until 1582, and so dates are unlikely to have lined up. Plus, record keeping in the 3rd century was not that good.


And why did Claudius ban marriage? He thought it made men bad soldiers, and war was pretty essential to his reign.


The story of falling in love with the jailer’s daughter was prevalent, and it carries into this next myth as well. In this one, Valentine was a hero for Christians who were being tortured by the Romans. He was imprisoned for doing so.


As for why Valentine’s Day falls in February, if it isn’t because that was the exact day Valentine sent his love letter, answers are again mixed. It may be for the same reason Christmas is in December--it was an attempt to Christianize a pagan holiday.


Lupercalia was celebrated on the Ides of February--February 15th--and was dedicated to the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, and to the god of agriculture, Fauna. Lupercalia was banned at the end of the 5th century, when February 14th was declared Valentine’s Day.


While today Valentine’s Day is a slightly cheesy holiday with lots of overpriced candy and pink teddy bears, it has had a long and storied history. Whether you believe that it came from a jailed man desperately in love with a woman he couldn’t have or just from another Christian attempt to wipe out paganism, it’s still a cute holiday with lots of meaning to many. And it’s a great excuse to eat way too much chocolate.

Claire Rhode is a junior double majoring in creative writing and history. She is the senior editor of Chatham's Her Campus chapter and also edits for Mighty Quill Books and the Minor Bird. You can also read her work on InMotion and Fauna's blogs.
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