Valentine’s Day: Ancient origins and modern opinions

By Sydney Bucholtz

Features Editor

Santa Claus found his roots as a third century monk named Nicholas who saved three poor sisters from slavery and prostitution by their father when he provided them with dowries to go off and get married ( The Easter bunny is theorized to originate from the pagan festival of Eostre, a goddess of fertility, as her animal symbol was a bunny, given the animal’s reputation for energetic breeding (Time). But how did Valentine’s Day spiral from the decapitation of Christian martyrs into a feast of celebrating flowers, chocolate, stuffed things, and romance?

According to Smithsonian, Valentine’s Day began as a “liturgical feast” in third century Rome. National Public Radio (NPR) referred to this “Lupercalia” feast as a fertility opportunity for Roman men and women from from Feb. 13 to 15. Men would sacrifice goats and whip women with the stripped hides, believing that the act would increase fertility. Then, men would draw a woman’s name from a jar, and they would be paired for the remainder of the ceremony.

So that’s the pairing-off part. Makes sense, right? But where did the name originate from?

Smithsonian described the “St. Valentines” sacrifices on Feb. 14 as being a time when persecution and killing of Christians was common. The earliest occurred in Africa, but despite even the research compiled by Belgian monks who have studies the lives of saints across the world, the only known information is the name and the date.

The following two murders occurred under the reign of Roman Emperor Claudius Gothicus. After a man named Father Valentinus was arrested and put under watch of a wealthy man, a conversation began between them about paganism. They ended with the bargain that if Valentinus could cure the man’s foster-daughter’s blindness, he would convert. He cured her, but following the wealthy man’s conversion, Gothicus had them all slaughtered. Smithsonian continued that the third man was a bishop of Terni with a similar story, having been sacrificed in a healing-conversion situation, by Gothicus’ hand.

In technically dying for the sake of the Catholic Church, these “martyrs” are honored and celebrated every Valentine’s Day. Later on though, a pope, Gelasius I, decided to combine this with the Lupercalia rituals to eliminate pagan rituals from the Catholic celebrations, according to NPR. Except this time, people wore clothes.

As writers like Shakespeare milked the holiday, people wrote out cards in the Middle Ages, and then the Industrial Revolution manufactured and boomed in the Americas, the holiday became quite commercialized, NPR continued.

Now, as traditions have evolved, the holiday has taken a bit of paganism with the pairing off, and the names of those collective “Valentinis” live on, in the form of “Saint Valentine’s Day.” Regardless of what we planned or didn’t, or how much we knew about how this holiday started, we all have thoughts, whether or not we realize:

“I think that it is a consumer holiday, and that people make a huge deal about it,” said Shelby Dunning, a senior studying sociology and anthropology at Canisius. “There are so many different types of love out there, and I don’t necessarily think we need a holiday devoted to romantic love. I feel that as a whole, we need more daily love of all types in this world. Why should we pick one day for love and kindness when so many people are hurting and craving love each day. Sure, it may be nice to devote a day in your relationship, but that’s what anniversaries are for! Everyday has the opportunity for an act of ‘Valentine’s Day love.’ You don’t need to spend all sorts of money on cliche gifts for people, but each day you can remind someone in your life that you love them and that you care. We need love everyday.”

“I think it puts so much pressure on everyone, whether they have a romantic partner or not,” said Jackson DiGiacomo, a journalism major and music minor. “If they do, that have to do something out of the ordinary and it’s generally expected that whatever plans are in place had better be spectacular. Every single person handles it differently but I’d contend that a large majority feel left out. Many people that have experienced heartbreak tie it to that day as well. It’s just a pressure cooker of a day. Small problems are magnified.”

“I think as a single person, people are under the impression that we spend the whole day being sad and I think for a lot of people that is the case, but for me I feel like it’s fun to hear what other people are doing and what couples are up to,” said Megan Rooney, who studies marketing and finance at Canisius. “I think there’s a lot of pressure to have the perfect date and I like seeing people that do really genuine things like staying in and making each other dinner because I think that’s what’s important: spending genuine time with people you care about and not necessarily doing something expensive and elaborate. I think this is shown even more through parents giving their children gifts and vice versa. like it’s really about the people you love and letting them know you love them.”

“To me, Valentine’s Day is just another day that people give each other things,” said Matt Ryley, fellow Canisius student. “As a single man, I am left out because everyone else seems like they have their own ‘special someone’ while the awkward and the single people of the world are left behind. Personally, I’m not enthused by our culture’s obsession with love and hookups; the vast majority of songs have to do with love and relationships, while everything else has to do with partying, just about every movie includes romantic scenes or love interests, and people would react to an asteroid on a collision course with Earth with fewer tears than they shed when ‘Brangelina’ broke up. Our culture’s obsession with love seems to alienate those who are different.”

“Valentine’s Day is a holiday that couples decide to celebrate and singles like to grumble about,” said Adam Duke, who studies journalism and psychology. “Each side is equally annoying in their own way and it makes for a good day to stay away from social media entirely.”

“Honestly,” said Joy Dudek, psychology major at Canisius, “next to Christmas, it’s my favorite holiday. To me it’s a special day dedicated to really showing the people you care about how much they mean to you. It doesn’t *have* to be your [significant other], they can just be one of the people, and you might do the most for them, but it’s not just them. It could be making cheesy cards for your friends and family or spending the evening watching rom-coms and eating pizza with your best friends, or even by yourself! You don’t *have* to buy someone an expensive gift, or take them to an expensive dinner. I think as long as you’re spreading love to people that are important to you, that’s all that matters. I feel like people put so much pressure on the holiday for it to be perfect and they have very specific ideas for what it means so be romantic, and I don’t think it needs to be that way at all.”

None of us likely pick names out of jars anymore. Sometimes we have Galentine’s Day. Sometimes we get heart pizzas. Instagram seems to be a common trend to the average couple, and some of you get to double up on anniversary and Valentine’s Day gifts. Nice. But the meaning and interpretation of this holiday, which originally stemmed from fertility and Christian sacrifice, is unique to the individual. Regardless of tradition, Valentine’s Day 2018 and the ones to come will continue to evolve in the ways that people choose to celebrate — or not — and interpret.


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