Valentine’s Day: What is It, Why Do We Celebrate It, and Who is It Really For?

By Shannon Hadeed. 

There are three theories regarding the history of Valentine’s Day; 1) Roman/Pagan festival 2) two Christian martyrs named Valentine and 3) Hallmark, an American Corporation.

The Pagan/Roman Theory

For those who believe in the Roman/Pagan festival theory of origin, there was a festival called Lupercalia, held in mid-February, which celebrated the coming of spring with fertility rites. No one knows the exact origin of Lupercalia, but it has been traced back as far as the 6th century B.C. According to Roman legend, the festival honored the fertility god Lupercus and a she-wolf who saved two baby princes who were ordered killed by an evil King.[1] It included animal sacrifices, namely goats and a dog that embodied Lupercalia’s red and white symbols. Red represented blood and sacrifice. White, the goat milk used to wipe the blood clean which represented new life and procreation.[2] There was also feasting and drinking, and the strange custom of running through the streets mostly naked, whipping women with goat thongs from the newly sacrificed animals to give fertility “consecration.” There was also a lottery, where people were paired off to have sex in the hopes of conceiving a child. Some believe the person’s name was pinned on their sleeve after the lottery, forming the basis for “wearing your heart on your sleeve.”[3]

A Tale of Two Christian Martyrs Named Valentine

The Catholic Church recognizes at least two different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, both of whom were martyred in approximately 270 A.D. (It is very possible they were the same man.) Saint Valentine was a clergyman – either a priest or a bishop – in the Roman Empire who ministered to persecuted Christians. [4] He was martyred and his body buried at a Christian cemetery on the Via Flaminia close to the Ponte Milvio to the north of Rome, on February 14, which has been observed as the Feast of Saint Valentine (Saint Valentine’s Day) since 496 AD.[5] One legend contends that Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome. After Emperor Claudius II outlawed marriage for young men to encourage participation in his military campaigns, Valentine defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death. Others believe it was Saint Valentine of Terni, a bishop, who was the true namesake of the holiday. He, too, was beheaded by Claudius II outside Rome. Despite the ambiguity surrounding Valentine and his life, the Catholic Church declared him a saint and listed him in Roman Martyrology as being martyred on February 14.[6] But, there was enough confusion about the truth of his life and death that the Catholic Church discontinued liturgical veneration of him in 1969; yet his name still remains among the lists of the saints.

Hallmark, an American Corporation

Lupercalia survived the initial rise of Christianity but was outlawed—as it was deemed “un-Christian.” At the end of the 5th century, Pope Gelasius declared February 14th St. Valentine’s Day. It was not until a thousand years later that the day became definitively associated with love. During the Middle Ages it was commonly believed in France and England that February 14 was the beginning of birds’ mating season, which added to the idea that Valentine’s Day should be a day for romance. The English poet Geoffrey Chaucer was the first to record St. Valentine’s Day as a day of romantic celebration in his 1375 poem “Parliament of Foules,” writing, ““For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day / Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.” Shakespeare mentions Saint Valentine’s Day in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and in Hamlet, where he alludes to the superstition that if two single people meet on the morning of Saint Valentine’s Day they will likely get married:

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

Handmade paper cards became the tokens-du-jour in the Middle Ages. Eventually the tradition made its way to the New World (that’s us folks).[7] By the middle of the 18th it was common for friends and lovers of all social classes to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes, and by 1900 printed cards began to replace written letters due to improvements in printing technology. Ready-made cards were an easy way for people to express their emotions during a time when direct expression of one’s feelings was discouraged. Cheaper postage rates also contributed to an increase in the popularity of sending Valentine’s Day greetings. In 1849, a woman by the name of Esther Howland in Massachusetts, began producing high volumes of Valentines with a work force of women.[8] The industrial revolution ushered in factory-made cards in the 19th century. Then in 1913 Hallmark Cards of Kansas City, Mo., began mass producing valentines.[9] Valentine’s day has never been the same.

The Institutionalization of Valentine’s Day at School

Valentine’s Day marketing is as focused on exchanges between adults as it is between children who are classmates. It’s understandable that the traditions we celebrate would trickle into our classrooms over time, but Valentine’s Day depends on school in ways that other holidays don’t. There is no real religious underpinning for the holiday and no historical or nationalistic traditions (such as a turkey for Thanksgiving) with the exception of the exchanging of cards at school.

When school celebrations first began, they were seen by some as the holiday’s ticket into the future. In a 1930 New York Times article, writer Henrietta S. Ripperger met the questionable endurance of Valentine’s Day with two frank assurances of its survival.[10]

“Will the valentine survive? The usages of Mayday, a festival of about the same relative value in the calendar, have almost died out. But St. Valentine’s Day customs are kept alive here by at least two influences… Incorporating the valentine into the work of the school assures a certain permanence to the utterly useless and engaging bit of nonsense [of making valentines.] And its position as a money-maker makes its position even more secure. Its future is in the hands of people who know not only how to meet a demand, but how to create it!”

As early as the 1900s, valentines were made by children and distributed at school.[11] In 1930, Hallmark starting selling multipacks of paper valentines, which is when they started incorporating them into the classroom.[12] By the 1950s, Valentine’s Day’s popularity with children was helped along by candy manufacturers eager to market to working class youth with disposable income, according to candy and sugar historian Susan Benjamin. “Valentine’s Day as we know it today is about industrialization and the role of machinery which kind of blended together with marketing to create candies,” said Benjamin.[13]

Starting as early as pre-school, it’s our children’s responsibility to go to the store, buy a pack of paper valentines and candy for all the kids in the class, and spend the night before filling out the obligatory cards, so that each child receives the same Superhero valentine regardless of whether they are the class clown or bully. For that one day every year, our children skip class to play post office and eat candy.

Today, debates over Valentine’s Day’s place in schools rage in online parenting circles. Some argue that the practice of each kid giving each other kid a valentine cheapens the holiday, and unhealthily coddles children. Others ask why we celebrate Valentine’s Day in elementary schools, anyway, considering they’re a needless cost for parents, and not to mention flagrantly wasteful. And there are still those others who insist Valentine’s Day is just a fun kids tradition that preserves the experience of getting a physical note or teaches tolerance.

As an adult, Valentine’s day is the least important celebration of the year, ranking far below Christmas, Thanksgiving, birthdays and anniversaries. I want to show my significant other I love them, but the success of our relationship doesn’t depend on the extravagance of this day. And in the past, if I didn’t have a significant other, I would opt out of the holiday or celebrate with friends. Once it passes there’s no lingering feeling of “What now?” like many people experience after Christmas or Thanksgiving. In the grand scheme of holidays, Valentine’s Day is as low-key as the gift-giving holidays get.

Now that I have children, I realize it’s really a holiday for them. After all, a holiday that originated with the goal of having a child to love, should rightfully be dedicated to them. Romantic love can be fleeting and messy, your love for your child will never fade. You can’t divorce them, they can’t divorce you, and they will always appreciate a day dedicated to spending time with them. We rarely see Valentine’s day included in a parenting plan- and I am not advocating for its inclusion as yet another holiday to fight over. However, a good co-parenting activity is helping your children make a Valentine’s day card for the other parent.

Valentine’s Day is a fun day for kids. It gives them the excuse to show people they love just how much they mean to them with sweet gestures, treats and notes. It is also an opportunity for learning. What kinds of love are there? What is an appropriate way to show it? What do you do if someone you like doesn’t like you back? How does it make you feel? How can you be kind to someone who likes you, when you don’t like them back? How would you feel if you couldn’t marry someone you love? As your children age, you can use the holiday as a vehicle for more complicated discussions or historical education regarding how our cultural and legal system as changed as our concepts and acceptance of different types of love has evolved.

It’s a great time of the year to snuggle indoors and make cards for family members and friends. As your children get older, they may be more interested in celebrating “Galentine’s day” (going out with their girlfriends on 2/13, look it up, it’s a thing) or my newly coined “Palentine’s Day” a more inclusive version for both boys and girls to celebrate with friends. It’s an un-holiday, so create your own family tradition.

Here are some ideas:

  1. Bake or make the same dish/snack with your children (Etsy has lots of suggestions)
  2. Have a Valentine’s movie night every year
  3. Do crafts
  4. Make up and read poems
  5. Embrace the history, read a book to them about Pagans, Romans, or Christians
  6. Take them out on a “date”
  7. Dance

Don’t pass up the chance to tell and show your children how much you love them, and how they will forever be your Valentine. After that, you can drink, feast on chocolate, and engage in pagan rituals.

Shannon Hadeed is an attorney at Robinson & Hadeed, P.S., based out of Gig Harbor. Her focus is on Family Law and Divorce, representing clients in Pierce and Kitsap County. She returned to Washington after practicing in Virginia for 14 years.

[1] The babies were Romulos and Remus, the twin founders of Rome. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Lupercalia and https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-rome/lupercalia
[2] https://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/Lupercalia
[3] http://holidayinsights.com/holiday-fun/valentines-day-trivia.htm
[4] https://www1.cbn.com/st-valentine-real-story
[5] https://www.vaticannews.va/en/saints/02/14/st–valentin–martyr-on-the–via-flaminia.html
[6] https://www.vaticannews.va/en/saints/02/14/st–valentin–martyr-on-the–via-flaminia.html
[7] http://archive.kuow.org/post/dark-origins-valentines-day
[8] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/soloish/wp/2016/02/09/long-before-hallmark-esther-howland-created-the-modern-valentine/,https://americacomesalive.com/2014/02/13/esther-howland-1828-1904-first-america-mass-produce-valentines/ and https://www.businessnewsdaily.com/3951-first-valentine-cards.html
[9] https://www.npr.org/2011/02/14/133693152/the-dark-origins-of-valentines-day
[10] https://www.nytimes.com/1930/02/09/archives/old-saint-valentine-although-the-world-has-changed-materially-the.html#
[11] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/2/100210-valentines-day-gifts-cards-history-facts/
[12] https://www.jacksonsun.com/story/news/2016/02/13/vintage-valentines-bring-smile/80351256/
[13] https://www.citylab.com/life/2019/02/candy-hearts-sweethearts-necco-wafers-boston-history/582226/