It’s that time of year again: stores are set to be cleaned out of wine and chocolates as men and women around the world muster the courage to confess their feelings for each other. I’ve never had much joy with valentine’s days in the past but this year, the first year of my history degree, I thought I’d make something of the day and try discern where this beloved day has it’s origins. The “true story” story of “Valentine’s Day” is unknown by many but really warrants learning, if not at least for being a good conversation crutch tomorrow when you’re talking to that special someone. This story has undergone many revivals and re-imaginations but all versions stem from the figure of Valentinus, a Roman priest and Christian martyr.
The Roman legend goes like this.
Valentinus was a priest who lived during the third century in Rome, a time when Christianity had been outlawed by Emperor Claudius II (213-270). Claudius was building up his military at the time and supposedly thought single men would make better soldiers because they would have less to distract them from warfare. Therefore in order to build an army with the strongest men imaginable Claudius outlawed marriage for young men of military age. Feeling this ban on love and marriage was unjust, Valentinus performed secret marriage ceremonies in accordance with Christian doctrine. When he was found out, Valentinus was put to death by the order of Claudius. The reasons behind the death sentence went beyond mere dissent however; Valentinus, in the name of love, had orchestrated Christian ceremonies for Roman citizens, which was strongly outlawed at the time. One popular legend states that before his execution Valentinus had one final request, that he be allowed to write a letter to his own beloved which he apparently finished with “from your Valentine” as his final farewell to her.
When Rome later converted to Christianity the deeds of Valentinus were revered and honored when the Church decided to make him a martyr and named the 14th of February as his own day. However, despite his after-the-fact recognition Valentine’s (as he later became known) name was not associated with romance and love until the 14th century, when the famous English poet Geoffrey Chaucer incorporated the deeds of St. Valentine into his love poem “The Parliament of Fowls”. It was during medieval times in England that Valentine’s Day as we now know it flourished, with the rise of ‘Courtly Culture’ helping romantics express themselves.
Since then Valentine’s Day has become a staple for countries around the world, with other cultures taking different spins on the concept of love but still retaining the honorable message of peace and free love. The Japanese celebrate Tanabata between July and August, the Chinese celebrate Qixi each August, and the Koreans celebrate Chilseok. It seems that no matter where one lives on this good earth they can always count on the power of love. (Ugh… did I really just type that?)
So there you have it, the origins of Valentine’s Day in a nutshell!
If you’re spending all of the 14th with that special someone be sure to have a great time, if you’re mustering the courage to ask out that cute girl/guy you’ve always had a thing for best of luck to you, and if you’re sitting here feeling glum that you have no ‘valentine’ keep your chin up: somewhere out there there’s someone just waiting for you to walk into their life.