The origins of beloved tradition: Valentine’s Day

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Graphic by Kayla Roberts.

Valentine’s Day, whose origins are thought to date back to ancient times, has long been a symbol of romance and love, although the meaning and the way it is celebrated might have changed over time. Many different stories are told about the origins of the centuries-old tradition, which today is celebrated by millions of people around the world every Feb. 14, including in the UNLV community.

Giavonna Ruggeroli-Wright, a UNLV student majoring in English, explains what the tradition means to her and says, “Valentine’s Day to me is a day in which those are able to express their love and appreciation for those that they hold dear.” She continues to express, “It’s also a day where they can remember the power of love and sacrifice for things that they believe in similarly to that of Saint Valentine.” 

Anna Raphaelle Reyes, an English major at UNLV with a Creative Writing concentration, describes Valentine’s Day in her own words through a written interview, saying, “Whenever Valentine’s Day is coming, I often think that it is the feast day of Saint Valentine, and I remember that whenever the day comes, I see most people celebrating this day for romantic love. However, I only learned recently at work that Valentine’s is also celebrated by students with their expression of love to friends, parents, and teachers.” She continues to express, “The way I understood this as a whole is Valentine’s is a celebration of love. Many kinds of love here in America, but usually romantic love in general.”

Claims and stories about the origin of the day

Despite Valentine’s Day’s renowned presence, its point of origin continually remains a subject of speculation. The New York Times contemplated the holiday’s origins back in 1853, concluding that it is “one of those mysterious historical or antiquarian problems which are doomed never to be solved.” 

The Story of Saint Valentine: Popular tales related to the Valentine’s Day honoree

While there are many stories from various times and sources about the origins of Valentine’s Day, making it difficult to pinpoint its exact origins, one of the most well-known tales today revolving around the holiday is based on stories starring Saint Valentine. 

As explained in these stories, Valentine’s Day is based on the tales of one or more Valentines who lived centuries ago in Rome and their tales of love, affection and devotion. Additionally, among the numerous Valentines that lived during these times, there were a few Valentines in particular that are notable to mention and whose stories are estimated as showing the closest relations to the holiday’s early beginnings. 

According to History.com, Roman Emperor Claudius II is found to consistently play a significant role in each of these stories. In one of the stories, there was one day in which the emperor concluded that he was going to prohibit young men from getting married, believing that those without families to think about and care for would make better soldiers. As a result of this decree, young men in Rome were unable to marry. However, a priest named Valentine disagrees with the emperor’s decision and, as a result of his opposition, decides to secretly begin to marry couples. When his actions are discovered, Valentine is forced to pay for his sacrifice with his life.

Even though it is uncertain whether the individuals in this story are the same person or not, since there are at least three recorded Saint Valentines, another popular story about the Valentine tradition’s roots centers around the bishop Saint Valentine of Terni. In this version of the tale, St. Valentine opposes the authorities’ decisions to help the people again and is executed by the same emperor when caught.

In her written interview, Ruggeroli shares her familiarity with Saint Valentine, saying, “I learned about the story of Saint Valentine at a rather young age. I would say I was about seven or eight. Saint Valentine was a priest who was martyred after choosing to follow the teachings of Christianity in time and his death was February 14th.”

Reyes also recalls hearing of Saint Valentine before, such as stories that he was a priest, sharing, “Stories like these are often told to Catholics that their faith was usually tested.” She continues to share, “For this priest, it is believed that he lived in the time where the Roman Empire was still there, and his faith was first tested by him being able to restore the vision of a blind girl. The next one was him converting people to Christianity, and even marrying soldiers in secret during the rule of a Roman Emperor. The Emperor was furious and the priest was sentenced to death if he doesn’t renounced his faith.”

Another story suggests that while Saint Valentine was in prison, he fell in love with a woman believed to be the jailor’s daughter or sister, and he signed the letter he wrote to her as “From your valentine.”

Today, most of the well-known stories about the history of Valentine’s Day generally revolve around these Saint Valentine tales. However, among these speculated claims is the possibility that there is evidence of the Valentine’s Day tradition’s origins that date much further back, possibly around the times of ancient Rome or paganism.

Gamelion: The month of marriage

According to The Collector, in the ancient Greek calendar, the month of Gamelion was a month for marriage and romantic celebrations. During this time, spanning from the middle of January to the middle of February, people celebrated the marriage of Zeus and Hera, preparing sacrifices for the marriage goddess Hera. Therefore, it is believed that February remained a month dedicated to love and affection for centuries to come. 

Lupercalia: A pagan festival of love and fertility

Another belief regarding the tradition is rooted in the pagan festival of Lupercalia, which was celebrated for love and fertility around Feb. 14 in the past. During this festival, pagan men and women came together to form couples and make sacrifices. 

Around the late fifth century, the Roman Empire was becoming more Christian and Pope Gelasius rose to power around that time as well and put an end to the existence of the Lupercalia pagan tradition. The Catholic church decided to declare Feb. 14 as a day of feasts in an effort to commemorate Saint Valentine. Valentine’s Day is believed to have emerged as a result of the Christianization of Lupercalia and similar ancient festivals. 

Cupid: A symbolic figure of Valentine’s Day 

In Roman mythology, Cupid, who is commonly associated with Valentine’s Day today, is known for being a Roman god whose roots stem from Eros, the Greek god of love in Greek mythology. Cupid can be acknowledged as being a god alongside being the son of Mercury, who is the messenger of the gods as well as Venus, who is known for being the goddess of love. He is generally known for his dealings with love and passion such as through deciding love connections using the prick of an arrow and is generally accompanied by a bow with arrows.

With the presence of the modern day Valentine’s Day celebration, many memories have come about in the lives of many such as those in the UNLV community that are associated with the beloved Feb. 14 tradition. 

Ruggeroli shares, “My most memorable Valentine’s Day moment was February 14, 2019, it was my very first date with my husband who I just married on July 6, 2023. We’re high school sweethearts so I’m able to remember Valentine’s Day in 2019 as our very first time getting to be with each other and now knowing we are spending the rest of our lives together.” 

Reyes also shares her favorite Valentine’s Day memory, saying, “My favorite memory is when I was subbing in the first grade, I was watching the kids giving bags of treats and little gifts with each other to express their love for their friends. It was a shame their teacher was on maternity leave which is why they were not able to celebrate it with her.” In regards to how she likes to spend Valentine’s Day, she shares, “Since I see this day as a day of romantic love in general, I like spending this day knowing my mom and stepdad are going to spend time with one another. It is fun to hear stories from my mom after they go to an event or after they had dinner.”

When asked about whether or not Valentine’s Day will lose its impact in the coming years, Reyes says, “I don’t think it will lose its impact anytime soon. It is a day of love, and all I can think of is the meaning of ‘day of love’ changing over the years.”

In the midst of its modern day traditions which include store-bought chocolates, candy hearts and roses, regardless of the sustained mystery that lies behind the holiday’s true beginnings, Valentine’s Day continues to be an opportunity that is meant to simply celebrate love.

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