Giant chocolate hearts filled with candy. Fragrant bouquets of vibrant red roses. Shiny Mylar balloons declaring everlasting love. Today, these all represent Valentine’s Day, a day of love invoking visions of horse drawn carriages, candlelight dinners and literal beds of roses. While February 14 may be forever associated with courtly love, this was not always the case. In fact, Valentine’s Day has woeful beginnings filled with crime, imprisonment and an eventual execution where the first Valentine was ever written.
Way back in the Roman era, the Emperor Claudius banned his soldiers from marrying, believing his soldiers would be more courageous fighters if they didn’t have a wife waiting for their valiant return. Despite Claudius’ rulings, the Roman priest Valentine was a fervent believer in love and would officiate marriage ceremonies in secret. Eventually, Valentine’s amorous activities caught up with him and he was sent to prison where he faced execution by beheading. According to legend, while in prison, Valentine healed the daughter of his jailer and before his execution, wrote her a letter, signing “Your Valentine” as a farewell.
Ancient Rome also held early Valentine’s Day festivals where a matchmaking lottery took place and the term “hitting on” was coined. During these festivals, men would “hit on” women by, well, hitting them. The women of the day would line up for these strange courtship rituals since they believed this would make them fertile! Luckily Chaucer and Shakespeare eventually came along and made Valentine’s Day more of the romantic celebration that is thought of today. Through the help of these two romantic poets, Valentine’s Day finally evolved into an occasion where lovers expressed their love by giving gifts of flowers, candy and valentines.
Thinking about Valentine’s Day’s strange and sad beginnings, I much prefer the chocolates and roses of today.