Probing Question: How did Valentine's Day start?

February 14, 2011 By Grace Warren
Probing Question: How did Valentine's Day start?

Never mind the 160 million greeting cards that will be purchased for Valentine's Day this year. Forget about the 35 million heart-shaped boxes of chocolates that will pass from giver to recipient. Long before today's modern commercialized frenzy, Valentine's Day was, well, just another day to commemorate a saint. In Catholic tradition practically every day of the year is a saint's day, so how did Saint Valentine -- instead of, say, Saint Sigfrid, whose day is Feb. 15 -- become associated with romantic love?

"The earliest evidence of an association between Saint Valentine's Day and celebrating romantic love is in a 14th-century poem by Chaucer," said Caroline Eckhardt, head of Penn State's Department of Comparative Literature. "The title of the poem is the 'Parliament of Fowls,' and the events described in it occur on St. Valentine's Day. The poem tells a story about birds who come to an assemblage or parliament to choose their mates." Most of the birds, who speak as if they were human, find partners, but the leading female bird is desired by three male suitors, and the poem ends with a year's postponement in deciding the outcome of this romantic quadrangle.

Which suitor's yearnings will be satisfied is not the only puzzle in this poem, which mentions Valentine's Day with almost no explanation. "By the late 14th century, when Chaucer was writing, his audience in England must have recognized the connection between St. Valentine's day and romantic love and sexuality," Eckhardt points out. Otherwise, Chaucer would have needed to explain it more fully in the poem." Thus he was probably not the originator of this tradition. Yet no earlier texts have yet been found that mention St. Valentine's Day as an occasion to celebrate .

Not only that, the date on which we now celebrate St. Valentine's Day may not be the one Chaucer meant. "His poem does not represent a mid-February setting," Eckhardt said. "Instead, it depicts a springtime scene. The narrator sees a garden full of blossoms -- white, blue, yellow and red flowers -- there are small fish in the stream, and there is a lot of birdsong." The season could be as late as May.

"The leading female bird and her suitors are very aristocratic, and some scholars, looking for a historical allegory, have tried to identify these characters -- suggesting, for example, that one of these male birds represents England's King Richard II and the female bird is Anne of Bohemia," Eckhardt said. "Richard became engaged to Anne around the era of this poem, and one of the treaties for their marriage was signed in May, 1381." This could explain the springtime setting. Still, why the connection to Saint Valentine and, for us, February?

"There are multiple Saint Valentines, but none of them seems a good fit for this romantic holiday," Eckhardt said. Among Valentines with February saints' days, "Saint Valentine of Rome was a priest martyred in the third century. Another Valentine became bishop of Terni; little is known about a third, who was also martyred. None of their biographies has a romantic focus. Their life stories each describe the life of a man named Valentine who was devoted to the Christian religion and died for it." A different Saint Valentine has his own day in May but his story too lacks a love interest.

Eckhardt points out what she considers an even bigger mystery. "What interests me is why certain medieval literary and cultural traditions are durable across times and places, while others fade away and are lost. I don't have an answer to why this one not only survived but became distributed worldwide." Indeed, Valentine's Day has expanded almost exponentially, from poetry in medieval England to the Victorian-era obsession over lace and ribbon cards, to a twenty-first century holiday celebrated in places as far-flung as Singapore, Guatemala, and South Africa.

Explore further: Tech gifts say 'iLove you' for men

Related Stories

Tech gifts say 'iLove you' for men

February 13, 2006

For many guys, nothing says "I love you" like an iPod. According to a survey by IOGEAR Inc., 61 percent of men said they would rather receive a tech gadget of some sort than the traditional candy or flowers for Valentine's ...

Love endures, but Valentine's Day roses are another story

February 9, 2006

Each Valentine's Day, sweethearts search for the perfect gift to represent their enduring affection. Shouldering the burden of embodying all this emotion is a delicate, finite bloom -- the rose. Ironically, this ages-old ...

Recommended for you

Scientists see order in complex patterns of river deltas

October 19, 2017

River deltas, with their intricate networks of waterways, coastal barrier islands, wetlands and estuaries, often appear to have been formed by random processes, but scientists at the University of California, Irvine and other ...

Fatty bird gland preserved over 48 million years

October 18, 2017

(—A team of researchers from the U.S., Ireland, Germany and the U.K. has found evidence of preservation of a fatty oil gland from a 48-million-year-old fossilized bird. In their paper published in Proceedings of ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Feb 14, 2011
In wales, we already had santes dwynwen for donkeys years on 25th january
not rated yet Feb 14, 2011
It's mind boggling how poorly researched this is. St Valentine's Day, like other Christian holidays, was created on top of earlier pagan celebrations.

St Valentine's Day day was intended to disrupt the many pagan fertility celebrations like the Roman celebration of Lupercalia.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.