With restaurant reservations filling up and the turnover of the drugstore holiday aisle from Christmas to Valentine’s Day decor, it’s become clear that Valentine’s Day is almost upon us. We know it to be a day of love—or at least, a commercialized parody of love—but how did it come to be? Who is Saint Valentine and why do we celebrate him?
Strangely enough, not much is actually known about Saint Valentine. In fact, because there is so little evidence available from the time period in which he supposedly lived, historians have discovered that there could have been multiple Saint Valentines. Or perhaps he didn't exist at all! While the historical record is murky, the most popular version of the story—which we have to take with a huge grain of salt from a factual perspective—unfolds as follows:
Saint Valentine was a Roman priest during the rule of Emperor Claudius II in the third century. During this time, Christianity was not the widespread religion it is today; it was still gaining traction, and early converts were viewed with some suspicion. And while Claudius II was generally tolerant of most religions and their accompanying policies, he was firm about forbidding some young people to marry, as he believed that unmarried soldiers fought better than married soldiers. He was convinced that unmarried soldiers fought better because they weren’t worried about who they would leave behind unprotected if they died, nor were they worried about the health and well-being of their family back home.
But Saint Valentine believed in love and marriage for young couples, and he went against Roman law and the Emperor to marry them in secret in the Catholic Church. Other legends say that he married these couples so that the husbands would not have to go to war. But whatever the reason, marrying the young folks was considered a serious crime, as was converting people to Christianity. These crimes resulted in the arrest of Saint Valentine, who was then placed under the responsibility of Judge Asterius.
Saint Valentine discussed his Catholic religion and beliefs with Asterius while under house arrest, and his steadfast belief in the religion convinced Asterius to present his daughter to him, in an attempt to cure her blindness. Saint Valentine is said to have miraculously restored her sight, and thus converted Asterius and his entire household to Christianity.
But in 269 CE, when Emperor Claudius caught wind that Saint Valentine was still breaking the law by continuing to marry young couples and convert people to Christianity, he condemned Saint Valentine to an execution trilogy: beating, stoning, and finally, a beheading. It's said that his last words were a note that he signed “from your Valentine” to Asterius’s once-blind daughter.
While some people believe that this note inspired our modern-day valentines, most historians think the evolution of Valentine’s Day is more complex. Many argue that the Chaucer poem “Parliament of Fowls”, written in the late 1300s, provides the first link between Saint Valentine and romance. “Parliament of Fowls” includes the line “For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day, when every bird comes there to choose his mate.”
The poem became a transformative moment in European history because it was one of the first times romance (especially forbidden romance) had been widely discussed and celebrated in the modern sense of the word. And by the 1400s, this poem had inspired nobles to start writing poems known as “valentines” to their sweethearts, bringing the story of Saint Valentine full-circle. Historians also attribute the poem’s line to the meaning of the term “lovebirds,” hence why Saint Valentine is often surrounded by birds in art.
We celebrate Valentine’s Day on February 14th because that’s the day that Saint Valentine was supposedly executed, which Pope Gelasius I commemorated as a feast day for the martyr in 496 CE. We associate this day with love because of his commitment to romance, family, and faith.
Though the Roman Catholic Church removed him from the General Roman Calendar in 1969 because his origin story is so cloudy, the church does still recognize him as a saint. His services tending to persecuted Christians made him a martyr, so he is recognized on February 14th in the Catholic Church’s Roman Martyrology.