Every February 14, across the United States and in other places around the world, candy, flowers and gifts are exchanged between loved ones, all in the name of St. Valentine. But who is this mysterious saint, and where did these traditions come from? Find out about the history of this centuries-old holiday, from ancient Roman rituals to the customs of Victorian England.
The Legend of St. Valentine
The history of Valentine's Day--and the story of its patron saint--is shrouded in mystery. We do know that February has long been celebrated as a month of romance, and that St. Valentine's Day, as we know it today, contains vestiges of both Christian and ancient Roman tradition. But who was Saint Valentine, and how did he become associated with this ancient rite? The Catholic Church recognizes at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom were martyred. One legend contends that Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome. When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When Valentine's actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death. Other stories suggest that Valentine may have been killed for attempting to help Christians escape harsh Roman prisons, where they were often beaten and tortured. According to one legend, an imprisoned Valentine actually sent the first "valentine" greeting himself after he fell in love with a young girl--possibly his jailor's daughter--who visited him during his confinement. Before his death, it is alleged that he wrote her a letter signed "From your Valentine," an expression that is still in use today. Although the truth behind the Valentine legends is murky, the stories all emphasize his appeal as a sympathetic, heroic and--most importantly--romantic figure. By the Middle Ages, perhaps thanks to this reputation, Valentine would become one of the most popular saints in England and France.
Origins of Valentine's Day: A Pagan Festival in February
While some believe that Valentine's Day is celebrated in the middle of February to commemorate the anniversary of Valentine's death or burial--which probably occurred around A.D. 270--others claim that the Christian church may have decided to place St. Valentine's feast day in the middle of February in an effort to "Christianize" the pagan celebration of Lupercalia. Celebrated at the ides of February, or February 15, Lupercalia was a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, as well as to the Roman founders Romulus and Remus. To begin the festival, members of the Luperci, an order of Roman priests, would gather at a sacred cave where the infants Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were believed to have been cared for by a she-wolf or lupa. The priests would sacrifice a goat, for fertility, and a dog, for purification. They would then strip the goat's hide into strips, dip them into the sacrificial blood and take to the streets, gently slapping both women and crop fields with the goat hide. Far from being fearful, Roman women welcomed the touch of the hides because it was believed to make them more fertile in the coming year. Later in the day, according to legend, all the young women in the city would place their names in a big urn. The city's bachelors would each choose a name and become paired for the year with his chosen woman. These matches often ended in marriage.
Valentine's Day: A Day of Romance
Lupercalia survived the initial rise of Christianity and but was outlawed—as it was deemed “un-Christian”--at the end of the 5th century, when Pope Gelasius declared February 14 St. Valentine's Day. It was not until much later, however, that the day became definitively associated with love. During the Middle Ages, it was commonly believed in France and England that February 14 was the beginning of birds' mating season, which added to the idea that the middle of Valentine's Day should be a day for romance. Valentine greetings were popular as far back as the Middle Ages, though written Valentine's didn't begin to appear until after 1400. The oldest known valentine still in existence today was a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt. (The greeting is now part of the manuscript collection of the British Library in London, England.) Several years later, it is believed that King Henry V hired a writer named John Lydgate to compose a valentine note to Catherine of Valois.
The feminists don't hate Valentine's Day!
Valentine’s Day. V-Day. The Day of Love. Qi Qiao Ji (if you’re Chinese). Single Awareness Day. Whatever one wishes to call it, every Feb. 14 people all over the world participate in the one holiday that claims to be solely devoted to love. Despite my self-defined feminist persona, I will admit that I am still a hopeless romantic who gets rather excited about this holiday, even when I’m single. But when I shared my enthusiasm with my co-workers, they looked at me rather strangely.
I remembered the endless times I had heard that Valentine’s Day was in complete contradiction to feminism, about how the holiday reinforces the injustices of gay marriage bans, gender inequality, and domestic violence. How many times had I read in pages of everything from The New York Times Magazine to Cosmogirl that women shouldn’t wait around for valentines, that we are perfectly capable people without men at our side? Why was having a valentine necessary if modern women don’t need validation from men? I began to wonder if I could reconcile feminism with full-fledged Valentine’s Day enthusiasm. After much internal deliberation and external research, I concluded that my love of the Day of Love does not conflict with my status as a proud young feminist. Valentine’s Day is not inherently at odds with feminism, as some have tried to suggest. Rather, Valentine’s Day can be used to raise awareness not only about women’s rights, but about a variety of other causes as well. Many humanitarian organization organizations have started to use the holiday to their advantage, and progressives should follow their lead.
Feminists know a woman doesn’t need to have a man to make her happy. Her significant other should not be the sole determinant of her happiness. But many people still assume that a man has to make the first move on Valentine’s Day, which only reinforces notions of weak-willed, submissive women. Is this still what the average woman hopes for? If so, this is a problem with our culture, not with the holiday. I know plenty of women who have reversed the roles and asked men out for Valentine’s Day. Other countries have gotten it right; in many Asian countries, such a Korea and Japan, women actually give men gifts on Valentine’s Day. By denouncing the holiday as a whole, one is pre-supposing that it is a day where the men are in charge. The holiday is not going anywhere anytime soon, but women’s rights advocates have the opportunity to reshape the Valentine’s Day into a more progressive form. A strong woman can enjoy the holiday while acknowledging that it will not make or break her in any way, and that it can be celebrated on her terms.
In fact, groups such as V-Day, which performs The Vagina Monologues every January and February, already use the date to raise awareness about problems such as rape and domestic abuse. Their message is not to renounce love, but to remind Americans that there are still very serious problems in the women’s world today. The group uses the holiday to their advantage. Instead of denouncing the holiday as a one that is as anti-feminist—which is never going to succeed in making it disappear—feminists would be well-advised to embrace the holiday, making it their own in order to bring attention to complicated issues of love and gender.
Many have also argued that another reason the holiday is stuck in the traditional past is that it is a completely heterosexual affair. However, this is simply not the case anymore. The holiday has adapted, and gay rights advocates have given an important role to Valentine’s Day. Specialty stores and an endless number of online websites offer and sell gay-friendly Valentine’s Day cards. GLAAD uses the holiday to raise awareness about most Americans’ heterosexually biased language; it promotes asking about V-Day plans with “partners” rather than boyfriends or girlfriends. Unfortunately, Hallmark has yet to come out with a gay-friendly section. However, what better way to advocate for rights than to highlight this blatant inequality? Why not use Valentine’s Day to talk about the heterosexual biases that are still rampant?
In Iran, the holiday has evolved into a form of political protest. Valentine’s Day is not officially approved by the government, so it has caught on as a signal of revolt against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s oppressive regime. It is just one of the ways for the younger generation to subtly protest the traditions of the regime and their elders. In the recent past, fanatic groups within other countries have persecuted citizens for their decision to take place in Valentine’s Day. In Delhi, India in 2003, stores that rebelled against the tradition and sold Valentine’s Day cards were attacked by extremists from the Shiv Sena Party.
Finally, Valentine’s Day is perhaps one of the best days of the year to remind Americans about the practice of safe sex. Why should progressives reject a holiday that can be directly used to encourage and prove that people need sex education? There is no better time than Valentine’s Day to spread awareness about the need for comprehensive sex education, inexpensive and easy access to birth control and condoms, and similar sexual health issues. Feb. 14 is also National Condom Awareness Day.
Skeptics and lovers of Valentine’s Day alike should enjoy this Thursday free from guilt over
giving in to this incredibly commercial holiday.