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Flowers, chocolates and a beheading? The bloody story behind Valentine’s Day

Flowers, chocolates and a beheading? The bloody story behind Valentine’s Day

  • The origin story of the day of hearts isn’t as romantic as we might think
Valentine's Day Origins St. Valentine's Skull Wikicommons header nolisoliph

The history of Valentine’s Day isn’t as sweet and loving as we think it is. The multi-billion-dollar celebration of love has a much bloodier origin than what we usually see on display windows and Instagram ads. 

Many people know that St. Valentine—the man behind V-Day—is the patron saint of lovers (as well as people with epilepsy, beekeepers and a whole host of other things, like fainting). But just who is St. Valentine and what did he do to deserve the title? 

The man (or men) known as St. Valentine

Contrary to popular belief, there wasn’t only one St. Valentine. According to some records, there were two different men named Valentine—both of whom are saints—who lived in the same period. One of the Valentines is said to be a temple priest, while the other was the Bishop of Terni, an area located in the outskirts of Rome. 

San Valentino da Terni by Giosuè TacconiCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

While the Catholic Church is yet to decide if these are two different men or the same man, St. Valentine’s act of bravery ultimately led to his (their?) untimely demise, at the hands of the tyrannical Emperor Claudius II.

My bloody (St.) Valentine

The series of events that laid the foundation for what we now know as Valentine’s Day starts with Emperor Claudius II (aptly nicknamed, Claudius the Cruel). 

During his rule, many battles were fought to expand the Roman Empire. To ensure that there were enough troops to keep his military forces going, the emperor banned all marriages (in the belief that marriage would dissuade a man from joining the army.) 

Around the same time, St. Valentine was a priest assigned in Rome. Against the orders of the emperor, he continued secretly officiating marriages for couples (while converting people from paganism to christianity). 

Valentine's Day Origins St. Valentine's Skull Wikicommons header nolisoliph
The skull of St. Valentine by Dnalor 01CC BY-SA 3.0 AT, via Wikimedia Commons

Upon hearing about it, Claudius ordered the priest’s arrest. He was captured, beaten with clubs and ultimately beheaded on Feb. 14, 270 A.D. 

A celebration of love—by association and historical liberty 

St. Valentine wasn’t closely associated with love until the medieval period. In the 14th century. Medieval poet Geoffrey Chaucer wrote a poem called “Parliament of Fowls,” which associated Feb. 14—the day St. Valentine was beheaded—to “courtly love.” The poem describes St. Valentine’s day as the day birds (and presumably humans) meet to choose their mates. This is said to be one of the earliest known links between the martyr and the celebration of love. 

Chaucer was also known to have taken liberties with historical settings and characters, so the association can’t be proven as historically accurate. 

A painting of Geoffrey Chaucer by Unidentified painter, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Other theories suggest that the origin of Valentine’s Day comes from the Feast of Lupercalia, a pagan fertility festival celebrated around the same time.

Whatever the case may be, Valentine’s Day has become its own holiday. Through time and some very clever marketing, the Feast of St. Valentine has turned into a secular celebration that stands for romance, flowers and chocolates. 

We may never know the whole truth regarding the origin of this Day of Hearts, but we can definitely enjoy all the red-themed stuff and discounted chocolates that come with the holiday. © 2020. Hinge Inquirer Publications, Inc.