The origins of Valentine’s Day
There are several stories describing Saint Valentine and the origins of Valentine’s Day. Here are some of the more common ones.
The Lupercalia Festival
Legend has it that Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were suckled by a she-Wolf. The Lupercalia festival was created to celebrate this. It began with a group of priests – known as the Luperci – making an animal sacrifice and then anointing the foreheads of two young Luperci priests with the sacrificial blood. These priests would then dress themselves in the skins of the sacrificed animals and run around the walls of their city. Girls would then line up along the route and would be touched by the animal skins as the young priests ran by. Lupercalia was held in the Spring (15th February) and was regarded as a festival of purification and fertility. The month of February takes its name from the instruments of purification – the februa - used by the young Luperci. A further aspect of the Lupercalia festival was the lottery where the names of girls were placed in an urn. Young men would then draw a name from the urn and that couple would celebrate the remainder of the festival together.
In 496AD Pope Gelasius decreed that the Lupercalia festival was pagan and immoral. In its place a new festival honouring Valentine, the patron Saint of lovers, was introduced for the day prior to Lupercalia – the 14th February. Instead of the lover’s lottery, there was a lottery of Saints where priests drew the name of a Saint from a box. They were required to study and emulate that Saint for the remainder of the year.
Valentine of Rome
There are two versions of this story. On one hand the Bishop of Interamna was imprisoned for defying a ban on Christianity whilst on the other hand, Valentine was a priest who continued to secretly marry couples to prevent young men being called up for the army. Whichever version you prefer, both stories have Emperor Claudius II imprisoning and sentencing to death the clergyman. Whilst in prison he developed a friendship with the jailer’s daughter and prior to his execution on 14th February (270AD) he sent a note to this girl declaring his love for her and allegedly signing it “From Your Valentine”.
The Valentine’s Day Card
The placing of names in an urn during the Lupercalia festival might be considered as the first Valentine’s Day cards. Or alternatively the note given by Saint Valentine to his jailer’s daughter could be regarded as the first greeting. A more modern reference to the Valentine Day card is attributed to Charles, the Duke of Orleans who was imprisoned in the Tower of London. During his imprisonment he wrote numerous love poems to his wife; some of which remain to this day in the British Museum.
The Valentine’s Day tradition was fully established in the UK by the mid eighteenth century with the exchange of handwritten notes. Improvements in printing soon saw the introduction of commercially produced cards. However, the later Victorians always regarded it to be unlucky to sign a Valentine’s Day card. Today, the Royal Mail is expecting to deliver 12 million cards in 2008 and have just launched a special stamp book that contains first class stamps and Valentine’s Day stickers.