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This Wednesday, legions of romantics will be sending and receiving gifts of affection, all in the name of St. Valentine. Let’s shed some light on who St. Valentine is and if they really are a big fan of Hallmark cards. 

With there being over 10,000 saints by some estimates, and over 30 Valentines, it is difficult to pinpoint which one of these holy figures the holiday of love is named after. Two figures stand out as likely suspects, both dying as martyrs on Feb. 14 under the rule of Roman Emperor Claudius Gothicus, but in different years of the third century. However, their stories are not ones of chocolate boxes and romance. 

According to medieval legend, one of these Valentines was a Roman priest who cured the blindness of a Roman aristocrat’s daughter after a moment of prayer. This miracle convinced the aristocrat and his family to convert to Christianity. Of course, the emperor commanded they all be executed. The other Valentine had a similar story, healing the son of a Christianity-skeptical Roman, and then being executed. Still, other legends tell of St. Valentine performing forbidden marriage rites, or helping Christian prisoners. These stories are more legend than history, full of a lack of evidence and difficult to verify details. In fact, the similarities between the Valentine’s stories has led some historians to believe that the two separate St. Valentines were actually one man who got split up into separate characters over time. 

Some speculate that the romantic origins of Valentine’s Day come from an ancient pagan celebration. The ancient Roman feast of Lupercalia was a ritual of fertility in which the men would sacrifice a goat and a dog, and then whip women with the hides of these animals. According to Noel Lenski, a professor at Yale University in an interview with NPR, the women would line up to be hit, believing it would make them fertile. The Roman celebration was characterized by drunkenness and nudity, but eventually began its path to the Valentine’s of today when Pope Gelasisus I combined Lupercalia with St. Valentine’s Day to solidify conversion and squash pagan celebrations. Still, this theory is just that, as Smithsonian Magazine states there is “no evidence that the pope purposely replaced Lupercalia” with St. Valentine’s Day. 

While the saintly origins of Valentine’s Day’s romance are muddy, events in later years provide slightly more insight into the Valentine’s traditions of today. During the middle ages, a belief that birds mated in February may have contributed to the February 14 romance. This idea seemed to pick up steam after “The Canterbury Tales” author Geoffrey Chaucer became the first English writer to associate romance with St. Valentine, according to some. For more information on Chaucer, see “For this was on Seynt Valentynes day” by Rebecca Sun on page 12. In a series of poems written in the late 14th century, Chaucer describes a “Seynt Valentyne’s day” with imagery of birds and springtime. This theme was taken up by English writers, with Shakespeare’s Ophelia being described as Hamlet’s Valentine. As time passed, the sentiment grew more entrenched, with the first handmade valentines being seen in the sixteenth century and mass-produced cards developing in the 1800s, according to the Library of Congress. Hallmark began mass production of Valentine’s cards in 1913, and the rest is history.

Whatever the reason, our modern Valentine’s Day now celebrates displays of undying affection, from roses and chocolates, to cards or cockroach naming certificates at the Bronx Zoo (it’s real, look it up). While the gifts of adoration are certain to descend upon tomorrow, the origins of Valentine’s Day remain as mysterious as love itself.