Disputed Origins of Valentine's Day

In the murky realm of relationships, it's always difficult knowing when love begins.

And it's also hard to say when or how Valentine's Day began. Some observers reach back centuries for clues.

The Catholic Church recognizes three Saint Valentines, all of whom were martyred. In medieval times the name Valentine was so popular that more than 50 Christian martyrs claimed the name. Indeed, the origins of Valentine's goes back long before just candy hearts or Rudolph Valentino films.

"Americans are not terribly past-oriented," said Alan Dundes, professor of anthropology and folklore at the University of California, Berkeley. "Instead, people only do that kind of research and put that kind of energy into knowing the past for things like 'Who Wants to be a Millionnaire' or 'Jeopardy.' People don't even know the origins of Christmas or the ways it is practiced throughout the world, starting with a deep European history."

Bishop Valentine, Queen Juno, and Claudius the Cruel

February 14 was first set aside to honor St. Valentine by Pope Gelasius in 496 A.D. He did so in an attempt to outlaw the pagan festival of Lupercus, a celebration of crops and herds that was preceded by a ritual involving a drawing that partnered boys and girls for a year. The martyred Bishop Valentine was chosen as the patron saint of the new festival.

In Rome at the time, February 14 was a holiday at which Romans honored Juno, the Queen of the Roman gods, goddesses, women and marriage. The following day, marked the Feast of Lupercalia. In one ritual at the festival, noble boys ran through the streets and lashed girls who wore hide thongs called februa (February).

Another widely believed origin of Valentine's Day is one involving Claudius the Cruel. This legend contends that Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome. When Emporer Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men — his crop of potential soldiers. Valentine 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.

According to another legend, Valentine actually sent the first valentine greeting himself. While in prison, it is believed that this Saint Valentine fell in love with a girl, possibly his jailer's daughter; who visited him during his confinement. Before he was killed, he allegedly wrote her a letter, which he signed "From your Valentine."

Valentine’s, the Chaucer Holiday

Still other historians say there is no link between the Roman festivals and Valentine's Day, and that before the poet Chaucer's time, there wasn't any link between the day of St. Valentine and courting — but after him, the link became established. This theory suggests that Chaucer was responsible for inventing the modern traditions of Valentine's Day. It was based on an old belief that birds begin to mate on this day, as he relates in "The Parlement of Fowles":

"For this was on seynt Valentynes day, Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make."

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