Let’s take a look at the origins of Valentine’s Day, which over the years has been a pagan festival, a Catholic celebration, a sordid medieval custom, a romantic tradition, and a commercial ritual marketed by U.S. postcard vendors.
The United States has a taste for festivities, and far more so than France. Americans constantly move from one event to the next, preferably with the least transition time possible. Then there is their singular ability for transforming such occasions into a commercial frenzy, which the French haven’t quite mastered. As a result, Valentine’s Day in the U.S.A. has become a celebration of gigantic proportions, with 145 million greetings cards sent every year.
There is some uncertainty as to the origins of Valentine’s Day. During the third century A.D., a priest by the name of Valentine of Terni would marry Christian couples in secret. As punishment, he was decapitated by the Roman Emperor Claude II on February 14. The pagan holiday of Lupercalia — celebrated since ancient times — may offer another explanation. According to tradition, every year from February 13 through 15, goats would be sacrificed and young women whipped with strips of the animals’ hides — a ritual designed to increase the fertility of future wives. It is said the Catholic Church outlawed this practice during the fifth century A.D., and replaced it with a celebration of lovers.
Andrea Camassei, Lupercalia, ca. 1635. © Museo Del Prado
This chivalrous tradition then took a sinister turn in the Middle Ages. As French sociologist Jean-Claude Kaufmann explains, men would dress up as bears and chase after women. The teddy bears gifted today are reminiscent of this questionable custom.
Love Letters and Greetings Cards
Romance finally returned with the Renaissance, when processions were organized in February to celebrate new couples. During these events, young men nicknamed “Valentines” would be invited to choose their dance partners. In 1496, Pope Alexander VI then canonized Valentine of Terni and made him the patron saint of lovestruck couples. And in the 16th century, English poet Geoffrey Chaucer wrote poems about the tradition of love letters exchanged by “Valentines” — a rite that was soon adopted in the United States.
Valentine’s Day, as illustrated by Harper’s Weekly in 1864.
Valentine’s Day as we know it in America dates back to the mid-19th century with the appearance of the first postcards. Around the same time, U.S. caricaturist Thomas Nast created Father Christmas as he is now known throughout the world — with a big red coat — and illustrated the first greetings cards published in the magazine Harper’s Weekly. With the help of American press moguls, modern Valentine’s Day was born.