No one knows exactly why we celebrate Valentine’s Day, but here are connections of varying significance: A Love Ode

It’s time to break out the scented candles, satin sheets, and edible undies, folks. Today is that one day a year that single people hate, when couples stare deeply into each others’ eyes for minutes on end, plan romantic surprises and eat chocolate off each other: It’s Valentine’s Day!

I’ll be the first to admit that, even though I always take any opportunity to do special little things for my special little someone, Valentine’s Day has always struck me more as a ploy for candy and greeting card companies to get rich off our sentimentality and romanticism. How do we have a holiday centered around chocolate, flowers, and lingerie?
In light of the occasion, I figured I’d give us all a bit of a history lesson: What is Valentine’s Day? How did we come to celebrate it the way that we do?

Saint Valentine(s)

There were actually two men — three by some accounts — that went by the name Saint Valentine and are associated with the date February 14, albeit of different years. Admittedly, not a lot is known about them for certain, or to where exactly the origin of Valentine’s Day can be pinpointed. Some even say that similarities in their stories make it likely they are just contradictory accounts of one person. What we have, however, are bits about Catholic martyrs and pieces about old European traditions.

Saint Valentine of Rome is what you might call the “Saint Valentine #1”; he was a Roman priest, and little more is known about him although there are legends in spades, such as one tale that says he restored a blind girl’s sight just by laying his hand across her eyes. Whatever it was, he must have done something right because he’s been revered for almost 1,500 years.

The name doesn’t occur in the earliest lists of official martyrs until it’s first seen in the Martyrologium Hieronymianum (“martyrology of Jerome”), which is one of the oldest and most influential lists of Christian martyrs dating from the Middle Ages, in the year 460 CE. Interestingly, Pope Gelasius I established the Feast of St. Valentine on February 14 of the year 496, saying that Saint Valentine is among those “whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are only known to God” (my emphasis). In other words, Valentine is super important and worthy of celebration, though we’re not quite sure why. He’s since been taken off and put back on the list repeatedly, but according to the church his holiday will always remain whether or not he’s viewed as a saint until it conflicts with some other, more important holiday for a patron saint.

Distinguishing between the tales of the two or three Saint Valentines is tricky because sources conflict about dates and details, but here’s something a little more concrete, although there’s still little evidence to go on. According to tales spun by an Irish priest, Saint Valentine was an matrimonial rebel. Emperor Claudius II reigned during the time of Saint Valentine, and Claudius notoriously persecuted the church. In fact, Claudius had an edict that prohibited young people from marrying; the reason for this was because young unmarried men made better soldiers since being married with families made them more apprehensive in battle, worrying that their death would mean leaving their loved ones behind. As such, this was a very permissive era with polygamy and promiscuity encouraged by the state in mockery and defiance of the church.

In retaliation, Valentine performed the marriages that were, for all intents and purposes, illegal. Valentine married all the young lovers, and still others who weren’t supposed to be allowed to marry as well. Some of the polygamists were drawn to Christianity and some say that Valentine also performed polygamous marriages too, marrying men to more than one woman. Despite the permissiveness of the day, marriage was still seen as a contract between one man and one woman.

Unfortunately, Valentine’s insubordination was discovered in 269 CE. He was put on trial for defying the edict and sentenced to a three-part death: beating, stoning, and decapitation. One of his judges was a man named Asterius, who had the blind daughter. Valentine prayed with Asterius and the girl and restored her sight, at which point Asterius converted to Christianity. Or so it goes.

The last communication that anyone had with Valentine, spoken or otherwise, was a note Valentine wrote to the daughter of Asterius. It was signed “From your Valentine”, which is alleged to be where we get the expression “Be my Valentine” or “Be mine” for short. He was beheaded on February 14.

It’s now a popular pilgrimage for lovers to pay homage to the remains of Saint Valentine in one (or both) of two places. Saint Valentine’s head is morbidly on display, wearing a crown of flowers, in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome. Inside a wax-sealed box in a small sarcophagus, some of the rest of him — though it’s unknown exactly how much since you can’t really see any of its contents — is in the Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church in Dublin.

Saint Valentine #2, more formally known as Saint Valentine of Terni, became the official Bishop of Terni circa 197 CE and is said to have been martyred on February 14 under Emperor Aurelian. The third alleged Saint Valentine metioned by the Catholic Encyclopedia was martyred in Africa with some companions on February 14, but little else is known.

In the calendar of saints in Christian denominations, St. Valentine’s Day has the rank of “commemoration”; however, in 1969 it was removed from the Roman Catholic Calendar of Saints while being left on national, regional, and local calendars since so little is known about Saint Valentine for certain.

Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre

On February 14, 1929, six associates of Bugs Moran’s North Side Irish gang and a mechanic were lined up along the back wall of a North Clark Street garage in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago’s North Side, and unceremoniously executed. The four executioners, associates of Al Capone’s South Side Italian gang — two of which disguised themselves as cops — were carrying shotguns and machine guns. It’s assumed that the goal was to take out Moran and one or two of his henchmen, but there ended up being more of Moran’s associates present than was expected, one of which was mistaken for Moran himself.
In fact, Moran had intended to be there but was running late. When he pulled up to the location, there was already a real police car on the scene. According to witnesses who overheard the gunshots, a sedan had pulled up in front of the garage, then two “cops” and two well-dressed civilians got out and entered the garage from the rear via the alley along the side of the building. After Moran’s men were killed, the two civilian-dressed Capone associates walked out with their hands up, prodded along by the ones dressed as cops; knowing the gunshots would draw attention from passersby, Capone’s associates wanted it to appear as though there were already police on the scene so that they could easily get away.
The assassins were allegedly very thorough; they sprayed their victims left to right, then continued to shoot after they had all fallen on the floor, even with shotguns. Moran’s associates were ripped apart in the process with two of the victims being particularly unrecognizable as shotgun blasts to their faces had almost completely obliterated their skulls. However, there was a single survivor aside from the German Shepherd that witnessed the massacre: Despite the fourteen bullet holes in his body, Frank Gusenberg — who refused to identify the attackers — didn’t die until three hours later.
It’s thought that Moran’s gang was there under the pretense of buying bootleg liquor, which was common during Prohibition. Many of the onlookers who saw the four attackers leave believed that the police were responsible for the massacre, which is likely the reason that the assassins left as they did. One of the fake cops was identified prior to the massacre due to a missing tooth. Ballistics, which was a new science at the time, was used to identify guns that were used during the execution and definitively charge the Capone gang.
Though the garage no longer stands, the site of the massacre is now the well-manicured lawn and parking lot of a Chicago nursing home. The wall against which the mobsters were executed was auctioned off and sold many times until recently being acquired and rebuilt by the Mob Museum in Las Vegas.

The Day of Love

The first association of Valentine’s Day with romance is traced back to Geoffrey Chaucer. In Parlement of Foules (1382), Chaucer wrote, “For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.” It was a poem written to commemorate the engagement of King Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia. Although it seems unlikely that birds would’ve been mating in England in mid-February, since this was before the Gregorian calendar, which wasn’t introduced until 1582, and due to precessional rotation of the Earth, the start of spring and birds’ mating would’ve been as early as February 23 in Chaucer’s time.
The earliest surviving valentine, or love poem, is a 15th-century rondeau by Charles, Duke of Orléans, to his wife written while being held prisoner in the Tower of London following his capture in battle. The earliest English valentines are the Paston Letters written by Margery Brewes to her “well-beloved Valentine”, her future husband John Paston.Valentine’s Day, seen similarly to how we see it today, is mentioned by Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1600-1601):

                    To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day, 
                         All in the morning betime, 
                              And I a maid at your window, 
                              To be your Valentine.

The Young Man’s Valentine Writer, published in 1797 in England, was a collection of sentimental verses and love poems for young men who were unable to compose their own. Streamlined and less costly postal services in the ensuing centuries as well as the influx of printed and manufactured cards with romantic verses and sketches (called “mechanical valentines”) led to a widespread increase in the sending and receiving of valentines on February 14. Children were given valentines of sweets, which was supposed to ward off Saint Valentine’s Malady (epilepsy).
The first mass-produced paper lace valentines on which love notes could be written were first sold in the United States sometime around 1847 by Esther Howland after her father opened a massive stationery store. Inspired by heart-shaped Victorian valentines she received from English associates, she imported English lace and fine stationery in order to replicate the look in the US. In 1849, a journalist referred to Valentine’s Day as a “national holyday (sic)”. In the next decades, handwritten notes gave way to standardized, mass-produced greetings.
By the latter half of the 20th century, the practices of sending cards as valentines gave way to all manner of gifts, especially things like candy, chocolates, and other confections. Heart-shaped and red satin boxes became popular packaging for sweets and gifts, replicating the popular shapes of the original Victorian valentines.

In the 1980s, jewelers began promoting Valentine’s day as an occasion for giving jewelry as well. More recently, Valentine’s Day has been seen as a Hallmark holiday due to the heavy commercialization while gifts have extended to all manner of finery such as designer items, high-end fragrances and lotions, and the like. However, it’s still a very popular custom to purchase or make paper valentines for loved ones. About 190 million valentines are sent each year in the US, half of which are given to a significant other and the other half to children, friends, and other close relatives. Greeting cards for Valentine’s Day is a $1 billion industry and individuals who bought actual gifts for their significant other in addition to paper valentines spent between $108 and $131 from 2010 to 2013. Though the numbers have risen compared to past decades, it’s expected to have plateaued.


And that about wraps up the Valentine’s Day history lesson. I hope everyone had a great Valentine’s Day. I got to spend most of mine with Michael, although since he had to work this evening we’re deferring our main festivities for next weekend when we’ll have 48+ solid hours for mushy romance and to whisper sweet nothings to each other. As usual, we did spend quite a bit of time in Starbucks today. Starbucks was decorated for the occasion and had these double-mustaches stuck up everywhere like paper garland, so Michael pulled one down and stuck to our faces, then we had a quick bite and a cuddle before he went to work. I’m so excited for next weekend!

On that note, it’s time for me to get some work done. Happy Valentine’s Day!


About the author

My name is Dane. I'm a writer at Android Authority as well as a tech journalist in general. As well, I'm a marketing guru, designer, and a budding web developer. My passions include portmanteaus, artisanal coffees, jackets, and the smell of fresh technology in the morning.
  • Sam

    Valentine performed the marriages that were, for all intents and purposes, illegal. lol. Companies just need to play on this and it would be a lot more marketable.

  • I liked that little factoid too lol, what a romance rebel.