On the origins of Valentine’s Day

10 Feb 2022

What the legend of a martyr, a poem about birds and a simple fallacy have to do with the ‘festival of love’ – An interview

Many believe it was invented by the flower industry, and opinions about it are divided: While many couples exchange presents to celebrate 14 February as a festival of love, not a few disparage Valentine’s Day as commercial humbug and reject it out of hand. Yet the commemorative tradition of this day can indeed be traced back to the ancient world, even though its original connotations differed from those of the modern era.

In an interview, Professor Roland Kany, holder of the Chair of Ancient Church History and Patrologia at LMU’s Faculty of Catholic Theology, sheds light on why a nebulous martyr figure from the third century is at the root of the Valentine’s Day idea – and what role a spring poem full of birds and ‘invented traditions’ have played in shaping its modern form.

The parliament of birds, Carl Wilhelm de Hamilton

Many people associate Valentine’s Day with red roses and expensive gifts. Yet hardly anyone knows that this day has its origins in the Catholic church. Professor Kany, tell us about the historical background.

Roland Kany: In the ecclesiastical year, 14 February was once known as Valentine’s Day because it had, since ancient times, commemorated two Christians – both named Valentinus – who were martyred for their faith in ancient Rome. The two may in fact have been one and the same person. Either way, there is archeological evidence that Bishop Julius of Rome (337–352) had a basilica erected on the site on the Via Flaminia near Rome where Valentinus was decapitated. This is the earliest testimony we have.

But beyond that, we know nothing of the life of the two martyrs at the time when Christians were being persecuted: All we have are legends from the sixth and seventh centuries. Legend has it that both the putative priest Valentine of Rome and Bishop Valentine of Terni in Umbria miraculously healed a young person of a serious illness. Many eyewitnesses were then baptized, raising the suspicions of the Roman state and leading to the execution of the respective Valentines – all the kind of snippets typical of so many legends about martyrs.

The timing of these accounts, one of which dates back to around 269 AD, are nebulous and contradictory.

So, is St. Valentine a myth, or does history verify his existence?

We can verify neither whether he existed nor whether he didn’t exist. From the legends in the annals of martyrdom literature, we can conclude that, as early as the sixth century, nothing definite was known.

Pope Gelasius is said to have instigated 14 February as a day of remembrance for the whole church in 496. Why? And how was this day observed back then?

This story about Pope Gelasius (492–496) has gone viral on the Internet but is based on a fallacy from the eighteenth century. At the time, some scholars believed that lovers’ Valentine’s Day customs could be attributed to a prohibition by Gelasius of the pre-Christian and at times almost carnival-like ‘Lupercalia’ festival that had proved hard to eradicate and was celebrated on 15 February. Their view was that Gelasius introduced Valentine’s Day on the preceding day as a Christian substitute. This, they claimed, accounted for why certain elements of Lupercalian fertility rituals had found their way into Valentine’s Day celebrations. There is indeed a manuscript in which Gelasius opposes Lupercalia, but there is no evidence that he introduced Valentine’s Day or was the first to put it on 14 February. Above all, there is not the slightest trace of love rituals on Valentine’s Day from ancient times to the middle of the fourteenth century.

Historically speaking, this day therefore has nothing whatsoever to do with Lupercalia. Nor does the Christian day of remembrance have any link to such customs. On the contrary, its substance is that Valentine is very briefly mentioned at several points in the service and that the legend of his martyrdom is occasionally recounted.

In the course of time, Valentine was commingled with other saints: In the Middle Ages, he was called on to heal people of epilepsy and other diseases. Various parish communities in Europe acquired what were alleged to be his relics for their church buildings.

Do our modern Valentine’s Day customs have anything to do with that time?

No. It was not until later that Valentine’s Day on 14 February became a day of romance. The origin of this tradition – not surprisingly – probably lies in poetry. Around 1382, the narrator in Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem The Parlement of Foules describes a sunny day in early spring on “Seynt Valentynes day”, which merely serves to put a date on the event. The narrator listens in as the birds engage in a lively debate, moderated by Nature in person, about choosing the right partner. The poem ends in vigorously tweeted consensus on the unpredictable, voluntary and glorious nature of love.

Since roughly the time when this poem was penned, we find the first of a quickly growing volume of documents attesting that lovers sent each other letters or small presents on 14 February.

Today, it has become popular to smuggle references to modern Valentine’s Day customs into the ancient legends of the Early Middle Ages. Suddenly, we find the Valentine of the ancient world gladly handing out flowers from his garden to those seeking solace, marrying lovers with Christian ceremonies and helping out when relationships hit a crisis. These are ‘invented traditions’: modern explanations of today’s customs, some of them concocted only a very few years ago.

But that’s the way it is with legends: The yarn is spun ever longer. The practice of florists stepping up their advertising ahead of 14 February was already widespread in the USA around 1900. Fleurop brought it to Switzerland around 1950 and, later still, to Germany. Nowadays, drugstores and even DIY markets adorn their websites with little red hearts to cash in on the consumption binge around Valentine’s Day.

Why was this day of remembrance removed from the Catholic calendar in 1969?

Over the centuries, more and more saints had been included in the Catholic church’s ecclesiastical calendar. There were so many that the most important religious festivals and dates were becoming overgrown. That is why many saints were struck off in 1969 – especially those for whom the historical record was uncertain, as in the case of St. Valentine. That said, all dioceses are allowed to add other saints to their own calendars. Valentine still appears in the calendar on 14 February in Mainz, for example, but not in Munich. But irrespective of this consideration, many Catholic and indeed Evangelical church communities have for some years held their own Valentine’s Day services on 14 February, with blessings for both existing couples and those still looking for a partner. Before the pandemic, these services were extremely well attended.

Is there still any way in which I can experience an authentic Valentine’s Day today, aside from the omnipresent consumerism?

Hopefully, as few couples as possible will have to experience ‘authenticity’ in the sense of the original Christian Valentine’s Day festival in the ancient world, because it was a day of remembrance for a martyr. But if lovers want to celebrate the day authentically in their own very personal way, everyone is free to express to their partner their joy at experiencing the gift of love.

Love should not wither away in the monotony of everyday life. The radiant brightness of flowers is symbolic of that. And since flowers quickly wither themselves, we should give them afresh each and every year and, above all, gratefully celebrate creation, life and love as a couple.

Professor Roland Kany studied German, theology and other subjects in Würzburg, Tübingen and London, earned his doctorate in 1986 and went on to work in research and teaching in Oxford, Rome, Mainz, Freiburg and Augsburg. He also spent a year in Frankfurt as editor of the respected daily newspaper FAZ. He has held the Chair of Ancient Church History and Patrologia at LMU’s Faculty of Catholic Theology since 2004. His research focuses on the first 600 years of Christianity and the history of ideas. He is married.

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