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."

Medieval historians say the original holiday for lovers was on May 3 and, in addition, there's a commemoration of a St. Valentine somewhere in the world every other week. In 1381, the author, best known for the Canterbury Tales, was employed in the court of Richard II. Chaucer's boss had managed to edge out two competitors for the hand of Anne of Bohemia. On May 3, the king announced their engagement.

"We easily could do nothing but celebrate this holiday,"said Henry Ansgar Kelly, a medievalist at the University of California at Los Angeles who has studied the day's origins.

50 Christian Martyrs Claim Valentine’s

Kelly said that in medieval times the name Valentine (derived from the Latin word "valor") was so popular that more than 50 Christian martyrs claimed the name.

These various saints — including St. Valentine of Bavaria, the patron saint of epilepsy and ailing livestock, and St. Valentine, the martyred priest of Rome — all had feast days called "St. Valentine's Day."

The Catholic Church added to the confusion in 1969 by striking St. Valentine's Day from its calendar as part of a series of reforms that de-emphasized Roman or Italian saints. "The disappeared saints were not de-canonized or declared nonexistent but merely suffered liturgical demotion," Kelly said.

According to www.holidays.net, the oldest "valentine" greeting in existence was made in the 1400s, and is in the British Museum. Around that time in Europe, often hand-made paper valentines were exchanged, and were especially popular in England. By the early 1800s, valentines began to be assembled in factories, and were often black and white pictures painted by workers. By the end of the 1800s valentines were being made entirely by machine.

That more recent history of Valentine's Day is what some more cynical folks may latch onto in seeking their answers to the day's origins.

"I think there was a Valentine who worked at Hallmark," said Judy McGuire, who writes about sex, love and relationships for the Seattle Weekly. "It's just a day that makes people who are alone feel like big losers and people who in relationships feel inadequate because the day never lives up to expectations."