When I was in grade school, Valentine’s Day was one of my favorite holidays. There were cards. There was the possibility that your crush actually liked you back. And, there was the chocolate — so much chocolate.
Little did I know that the roots of this holiday bore little-to-no resemblance to my childhood experience of it. We were never taught that Valentine’s Day actually originated with an arguably gruesome ancient festival, where there was no chocolate or exchange of cute, red-and-pink cards.
But love it or hate it, those are the types of things we associate with the holiday today. After all, there’s a reason roughly 114 million Valentine’s Day cards are exchanged each year — it’s what’s become expected of us.
So how the heck did we get from an ancient Roman festival to a holiday that compels many of us to spend no less than $147 on celebrating it? That story, it turns out, is thousands of years old — but we’ll try to condense it.
How Valentine’s Day Began and Evolved
The roots of Valentine’s Day are cited by some sources to lie in the ancient Roman festival Lupercalia, largely because it took place annually on February 15 — the day after what is today the observed date of Valentine’s Day — and involved some very primitive forms of courtship and matchmaking. But it was also ancient Rome that saw the famous execution of a St. Valentine on February 14, around 278 A.D. According to legend, he wrote a letter on the night before his execution to his jailer’s daughter, whom he had befriended, and signed it, “From Your Valentine.”
Over two centuries later, Pope Gelasius ordered that Lupercalia be replaced with the February 14 observation of St. Valentine’s Day. That set the tone, some believe, for the day’s forthcoming tradition of exchanging “love messages,” perhaps in remembrance of St. Valentine’s farewell letter.
The Romans are also credited with constructing the idea of Cupid — a god of love often depicted with arrows that, as the legend goes, inflict love upon those who are hit by them. The Roman version of Cupid was adapted from Eros, a god of passion and fertility in Greek mythology. It seems that no one is quite sure when cupid became associated with Valentine’s Day, but the fact that both have origins in ancient Roman culture suggests that there may have been some very early overlap between the two.
Shakespeare (and Chaucer) in Love
Source: Internet Archive
When NPR’s Arnie Seipel set out to explore the history of Valentine’s Day, he found that it first became romanticized by classic authors like William Shakespeare in the late 16th century, and Geoffrey Chaucer in the 1300s.
Dartmouth English professor Peter Travis cites Chaucer’s epic poem The Parliament of Fowls, which was one of …read more
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