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The origin and meaning of St Valentine's day

By Edited Jun 26, 2015 0 1

Early Christian Martyrs

Have you ever wondered what Saint Valentine's Day is really all about? It suddenly pops up in the calendar at the midpoint of February and "love is in the air". There are other Saints days such as Saint Patrick's Day and Saint George's Day that are celebrated by the Irish and English communities but why is Saint Valentine's day celebrated all over the world by Christians and non Christians alike? Seeking an answer I went to find out all that I could on this popular but little known Saint.

Valentine of Terni


The man in question the real  Saint was Valentine of Terni who was a Christian, perhaps even a bishop who was martyred for his beliefs around AD197, or was he the man in question? There are records of another man who again was martyred for his beliefs, Valentine of Rome, killed by the Roman Emperor Claudius. Apparently the Emperor had decreed that all young men were forbidden to marry but this Saint Valentine had conducted marriages. The Emperor Claudius who was not known for his common sense or judgement decreed  that the relationships between the men and their wives sapped their strength for battle! - Where the Emperor thought the new soldiers were coming from is open to conjecture perhaps they had a vast number of gooseberry bushes!

There is a suggestion that around 496 AD the Pope Gelasius I made Saint Valentine 's Day a feast day to replace a popular pagan festival, in fact in stayed in the papal calendar until it was removed by Pope Paul V1 in 1969. So it must be asked, how did romance become linked to the unfortunate martyrdoms of some early Christians?

Shakespeare and Chaucer

Little is known about the Saint Valentine festival until the fourteenth century and the work of Chaucer. Geoffrey Chaucer has been regarded as the father of English Literature and was the leading poet of his age. Chaucer wrote an epic poem, some 700 lines, called the "Parlement of Foules" in which he has a dream and in it a vision it is the first time that someone refers to the occasion of Saint Valentine's Day in print. Chaucer used the analogy of two birds meeting and mating and it is generally agreed that he wrote the poem for King Richard II at his betrothal to Anne of Bohemia. There is some doubt about the actual date of the day as the couple were betrothed in May which was a time of the year when birds would be mating. In early medieval life the main occupation for wildlife and many people was simply to ensure their survival.

About the same time as Chaucer was writing the French established a High Court of Love, dealing with love contracts, betrayals and violence against women, though it somewhat doubtful that domestic violence in its modern explanation was on the court agenda. As the centuries progressed there were some more references in literature in William Shakespeare's Hamlet, Ophelia talks about Valentine's day and her longing to be his valentine, and the epic poem of Edward Spenser "The Faerie Queene" mentions those classic valentine words, "roses red and violets' blue". It must have been a fairly well known festival to be included in the popular works of the day with no explanation needed to be give to the audience.


The Young Man's Valentine

I did think that  commercial aspect of  Valentine 's Day was a modern phenomenon but then I read that a book was published in 1797 called  the "Young Man's Valentine Writer" which consisted of a number of verses that a young man could use to impress his valentine. On 5th December 1839 the national "Penny Post" was introduced which made it easier to send valentines anonymously and cheaply anywhere in the country. No more knocking on the door, leaving a card and running away- not an action for a gallant beau! This reduction in postal costs caused a surge in the number of Valentines being bought and they began to be mass produced in factories. The practise of giving cards spread from the UK to the United States with the first mass produced cards being sold from 1847 onwards.

Believed to be from the 1920@s

Old Valentine's Day card
Credit: By Public domainPublic domainfalsefalse This media file is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1923. See this page

Commercial Opportunities

After the Second World War the commercialisation of Saint Valentine's Day really took off. Not only were cards sent but also presents flowers, chocolates and indulgent meals for two. The modern Saint Valentine's Day industry is enormous; you only need to look around your local store or mall near the day to see the impact. Today, we were getting some gas and noticed that the station forecourt was full of flower bunches when normally there are a bedraggled three or four bunches in a bucket. The idea of Saint Valentine's Day has spread around the world as organisations have seen commercial opportunities, who on earth could complain about a festival based on love? Actually they can, in 2011 in Malaysia 100 Muslim couples were arrested for celebrating the day and in Iran celebration is discouraged not that you could buy anything to celebrate with as the production of cards and gifts for Valentine celebration has been banned

Are you ready for Valentine's Day?

If you are a true romantic you have probably already planned your celebration, perhaps a candlelight meal, though in modern austerity Britain many people are buying their meals in the supermarket and warming them in the microwave! Maybe some chocolates? Funny how all the special offers on chocolates finished last week! Or perhaps those beautiful red roses? I sympathise with a friend who was celebrating his first year of marriage- if she'd only wait a week for her Valentine flowers they would cost half the price. So, if you are free to celebrate, the do so, if you do not have a partner or beau then you can celebrate the love and friendship of others and give thanks that some early Christian martyrs may or may not have been involved in creating this early festival



Feb 17, 2013 8:30pm
Well that was very interesting! I loved the historical detail.
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