Origins of Valentine’s Day

Nancy Battick , Special to The County
2 months ago

As Valentine’s Day approaches wives and sweethearts are awaiting flowers, candy or other gifts. It was different for our great-grandparents. They may have gotten a card or nothing at all.  But woe betide the husband or sweetheart who forgets his love today. If you’re reading this, guys, plan on something to surprise the love of your life.

But how did all this come about? What were the origins of Feb. 14 and Valentine’s Day? The date originated with the Romans, who celebrated the advent of spring each year with a large festival called Lupercalia. The Catholic Church frowned on such festivals but recognized that people clung to pagan holidays. It’s likely the Catholic Church adopted St. Valentine’s Day as a Christian festival to replace Lupercalia.  The church often did this, replacing a pagan feast or festival, with a Christian one. 

Who was St. Valentine? There are actually three saints with the name Valentine, and all were martyred. There doesn’t appear to be any proof of the existence of any of these Valentines, but the legends became so popular that people in the Middle Ages in England and France made Valentine one of the most popular saints, according to the History Channel.  It’s most likely the legend of love and springtime that led some people in the Middle Ages to write a poem or letter to their loved one. But this wasn’t common considering that most of the population couldn’t write and were too occupied with work and surviving to think of poetry. 

Valentine’s Day also has another common figure, Cupid, that chubby little guy with the bow and arrow. He’s the Roman version of the Greek god of love, Eros.  So the plump guy who wields his magic arrow to bring lovers together is actually a pagan god. The appearance of Cupid is relatively recent and not sanctioned by any church, making Valentine’s Day a secular occasion.

Giving Valentine cards seems to have become common in the Victorian era, which cherished sentimentality. Exchanging small gifts was known in the 17th century and handcrafted cards were sometimes given. By the 20th century, printed cards became common. Valentine’s Day became more popular. Florists, card companies, candy makers, jewelers and others have all jumped on the Valentine’s Day bandwagon. As with Christmas, it’s now a commercial holiday with money to be made and its origins are mostly forgotten. 

Did you inherit a treasured box of old cards? Do you have a handmade Valentine? Do you have an ancestor’s love letter to his sweetheart or a gift such as heart pendant? If you’re fortunate enough to have such treasures, please don’t just discard them.  They’re proof of a time when people valued and kept their cards to fondly ponder over the years. You can safely store a paper card even with handmade lace in a clean tin container such as Christmas cookies come in. Just be sure it is clean and dry. 

And happy Valentine’s Day.

Columnist Nancy Battick of Dover-Foxcroft has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft.  Nancy holds an MA in History from UM and lives in DF with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist. Reader emails are welcome at nbattick@roadrunner.com.