The Complex Origin of Valentine’s Day

Saint Valentine in a painting by Bassano


Saint Valentine’s Day is widely celebrated in the Western world as a day of love and romantic relationships. While this tradition does go far back and has connections to early Christian traditions, there are also more complex links with pre-Christian holidays that were likely changed or modified into Saint Valentine’s Day traditions.

The story of Saint Valentine does have a direct link to one or several early saints called Valentine. Many traditions have developed around this holiday, and most likely, multiple traditions were integrated as original records were lost. One of those traditions states that Valentines was a priest in Rome martyred for defying Claudius II, who had decreed his soldiers would not marry. He may have tried to marry soldiers in secret, and when the emperor found out, he had him executed. The heart may have been a symbol of love between the pair, which could have become a love symbol.

Other scholars, however, dispute that an emperor would have ever done such an edict. Another story states Valentine tried to help Christians escape, and he was imprisoned after he was caught. He eventually may have fallen in love with his jailor’s daughter, and he sent the first “valentine” to her. He may have greeted her by saying, “Your Valentine,” which uses valentine as part of the Valentine Day greeting may have originated. Another idea is that Valentine of Terni, a Christian bishop, was martyred in 273 during persecutions.

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