When Did We Start Celebrating Valentine’s Day?

The 14th February sees the annual celebration of love, a day we take the opportunity to tell people we care about just how much they mean to us, but when exactly did this whole thing start?

The history of Valentine’s Day and the story of its patron saint is somewhat of a debated mystery. It appears that St Valentine himself could actually have been a few people as there are at least three different Saint Valentines, all of them martyrs, who are mentioned in relation to the date of February 14th.

One of the most common beliefs, however, is the story of Saint Valentine of Rome who was a priest during the third century in Rome. He was martyred in 269 for ministering to Christians persecuted under the Roman Empire in the third century. A later addition to the legend claims when Emperor Claudius II supposedly decided that single men were better soldiers than those who were tied to wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine decided to defy Claudius and continued to secretly perform marriage for young lovers. It is said he eventually got caught out and was ordered to be put to death.

Another legend states an imprisoned Valentine sent the first ‘Valentines Day Card’ himself after falling in love with a young girl who would visit him during his confinement. Before his execution, it is said he wrote her a letter signed “From your Valentine” – an expression that would go on to be used to this day.

The story of Saint Valentine of Rome shares little resemblance to our modern, romantic notions of Valentine’s Day, and it is argued this is more like the earliest possible origin story of the pagan holiday Lupercalia – a celebration of fertility. Occurring for centuries in the middle of February, young men would be paired with young women and rituals to promote fertility would ensue.

It is said that when Pope Gelasius came to power in the late fifth century he put an end to Lupercalia, and soon after the Catholic church declared February 14th to be a day of feasts to celebrate the martyred Saint Valentine of Rome – so it has been argued the pagan holiday is actually the true origin of the romantic notion associated with the holiday.

Fast forward to the 14th century and the day started to become widely accepted as a day for romantic love, apparently due to a link with the ‘lovebirds’ of early spring. It is said during this time that the poet Geoffrey Chaucer was the first person to link Valentine’s Day to romance in his poem The Parlement of Foules, thus encouraging a romantic day for couples to show their affection.

In 18th century England, it eventually gained momentum as an occasion for couples to express their love for each other by presenting cards, flowers and confectionery – recognisable as how many of us celebrate it today.

Although the true origins of Valentine’s Day appear unclear, and it is suggested that additions to the legend throughout the centuries have better related the story to love, many continue to celebrate the occasion each year to this day. Perhaps the details of this holiday will always be lost to time and will continue to be romantically retold for ages to come.