Valentine’s Day is the officially established day when many people send Valentine’s cards and chocolates to their significant other. Depending on the sources, there are various ideas of the origins of this holiday.
One possible origin for the inspiration behind the holiday is the ancient pagan observation of Lupercalia which was celebrated on Feb. 15. Lupercalia was a fertility celebration in honor of the Roman god of agriculture, Faunus, and, also, to celebrate Rome’s founders’ Romulus and Remus. On this day, the party-goers’ celebration took place at the cave where Romulus and Remus were supposedly cared for and raised by a female wolf. Priests would sacrifice a goat for fertility and a dog for purification. The priests would then cut the hides into strips, which the revelers would carry as they ran through the city, slapping the locals, but especially the women, believing it would increase fertility.
The Valentine’s Day holiday is more likely to have been inspired by one or two martyrs both bearing the name Valentine, who were eventually sainted by the Catholic Church. One man was remembered for performing forbidden marriages in secret and another for sending a love letter to his blind lover from his prison cell.
So whether the holiday was inspired by a bloody pagan celebration or an attempt to Christianize said pagan holiday, we may never know.
Later, two of Britain’s greatest bards helped establish a more romantic version of this holiday.
In the Middle Ages, poet Geoffrey Chaucer first mentioned Valentine’s Day as a romantic day in his poem “Parliament of Foules”: “For this was on Saint Valentines day,/ Whan every brid cometh ther to chese his make” (p. 8).
Some Europeans believed Feb. 14 was the start of birds’ mating season, and this reference ultimately inspired the line in Chaucer’s poem.
Then in the 16th century, in William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Hamlet’s lover Ophelia refers to the holiday: “Pray you, let’s have no words of this, but when they ask you what it means, say you this: (sings) Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s day,/ All in the morning betime,/ And I a maid at your window,/ To be your Valentine.” (Act 4, Scene 5).
Valentine’s cards started to pop up in the Middle Ages, with written love notes showing up after 1400. The oldest documented valentine was written by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife in 1415 while he was a prisoner in the Tower of London after the Battle of Agincourt.
Americans began sending cards in the 1700s. American Esther A. Howland became the “Mother of the Valentine” in the 1840s when her cards made of lace, ribbons and pictures became popular.
In 1900 printed cards became all the rage as printing methods were more accessible to the public.
According to a 2009 article from History.com, approximately 145 million Valentine’s Day cards are sent each year, making it the second most popular holiday to send cards (the first is Christmas).
Clare Bender is an Anoka County Historical Society volunteer.