Valentine's Day: origins, who was St Valentine & why 14 February?

Valentine's Day is a celebration of romantic love - but how did it come about, and why is it held on 14 February?

Valentine's Day: origins, who was St Valentine & why 14 February?

What is Valentine's Day and when is it celebrated?

Celebrated on 14 February every year, Valentine's Day, or St Valentine's Day, is a day on which people express their affection for another person by sending them a card with a message of love, and/or gifts such as chocolates or flowers.

The oldest known Valentine's Day message dates back to 1415, when the Duke of Orléans sent a poem to his wife from the Tower of London, where he was being held prisoner.

Today, Valentine's Day has become a multi-billion-dollar industry. According to research carried out by the National Retail Federation and Prosper Insights & Analytics, people in the US are expected to spend a total of $21.8bn in the process of celebrating the occasion in 2021.

A florist works on products for sale ahead of Valentine's Day.

Origins of Valentine's Day and choice of 14 February

Lupercalia: Roman festival of fertility

The origins of Valentine's Day can be traced back to Roman times, to a pagan feast that was a slightly less romantic affair than the celebration we have today.

Called Lupercalia, it was an alcohol-fuelled festival held from 13 to 15 February, in which men would sacrifice a goat and a dog before whipping women with the dead animals' hides. Noel Lenski, a historian at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has told NPR that women would encourage men to hit them, as it was believed the action would increase their fertility.

Lupercalia also involved men and women being paired together for the feast - and even until the following year’s celebration - by pulling their names out of a hat.

At the end of the fifth century, Pope Gelasius I then replaced Lupercalia, a festival he branded "un-Christian", with the Feast of St Valentine, to be celebrated on 14 February in honour of the martyred St Valentine.

Who was St Valentine?

The Catholic Church recognises several St Valentines, so the saint in question is officially known as St Valentine of Rome to differentiate him from the others. Exactly who he was is not absolutely clear, although there are two main candidates.

He could be a Roman priest and physician executed during Emperor Claudius II’s persecution of Christians on 14 February in about 270. He has alternatively been identified as the Bishop of Terni, likewise martyred by Claudius in Rome on 14 February. These two people might also be one and the same person.

Legends surrounding St Valentine

After being sentenced to death, it is said St Valentine fell in love with his jailer’s daughter and sent her letters signed "from your Valentine".

According to another legend, he secretly married couples despite the emperor prohibiting young men from marriage because he believed they made better soldiers if they were single.

Connection with love also linked to Chaucer poem

In these legends, the connections between St Valentine and romance are clear to see; however, it is also suggested that Valentine’s Day didn't definitively become associated with love until many, many years later.

Indeed, the growth of notion that Valentine's Day is a celebration for lovers has been linked to English poet Geoffrey Chaucer’s late-14th-century poem 'Parlement of Foules', which drew on the belief that 14 February marked the start of birds’ mating season.

In the poem, described by the British Library as a "humorous and at times philosophical exploration of the idea of love", Chaucer talks of "Seynt Valentyne's day" as a time when "every foul cometh ther to choose his mate".