Originally known as Saint Valentine's Day, this holiday that glorifies idyllic love, was established to honor St. Valentine, despite the fact that the Christian martyr was not associated with love. In an attempt to pinpoint the origin of this holiday, it is found that there were actually fourteen individuals in ancient times possessing the name of St. Valentine, any one of which might have been the one for whom this day was named. All fourteen came to bear the title of Saint Valentine because they were martyrs of the Catholic Church.
Of the various individuals who possessed the name, one St. Valentine served as a priest in Rome who helped the martyrs under the persecution of the Roman emperor Claudius II before himself becoming a martyr on 14 February 269 (or 270 according to some sources).
The actual holiday was established by Pope Gelasius I in the year 496. Prior to that time, the Roman festival of Lupercalia had been observed in a three day celebration beginning on February 13 and ending on the 15th. Lupercalia was an ancient festival that was primarily devoted to imploring the gods to grant fertility to the supplicants. As was the case with most Christian holidays, pre-existing pagan holidays such as Lupercalia were simply renamed and transformed into Christian ones, making them palatable to the new religion. This would explain the connection of the holiday with love and sentiment.
The use of the name valentine as the name of an object was, according to folklore, the result of a ban on marriage by Claudius II. Claudius believed that the men who made up his army would be physically strong if they were celibate. Therefore the emperor banned marriage. But there were priests, including Valentine, who performed the rite of marriage for believers despite the risk of being caught and punished. The legend surrounding St.Valentine's name arose when he eventually was caught. He performed a minor miracle by healing the blind daughter of his jailor. After he was led away to be beaten with clubs and then beheaded, a note was found in his cell, addressed to the jailor's daughter, and signed as "from your Valentine".
The earliest instance of the connection between Saint Valentine's Day and romantic love came in Geoffrey Chaucer's Parlement Of Foules, published in 1382. In that poem Chaucer wrote on lines 302 to 315:
And in a launde, upon an hille of floures,
as set this noble goddesse Nature;
Of braunches were hir halles and hir boures,
Y-wrought after hir craft and hir mesure;
Ne ther nas foul that cometh of engendrure,
That they ne were prest in hir presence,
To take hir doom and yeve hir audience.
For this was on Seynt Valentynes day,
Whan every brid cometh ther to chese his make,
Of every kinde, that men thenke may;
And that so huge a noyse gan they make,
That erthe and see, and tree, and every lake
So ful was, that unnethe was ther space
For me to stonde, so ful was al the place.
Lines 309 and 310 might be translated to modern day English as: For this was on Saint Valentine's Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.
These verses were written during the emergence of the concept of "courtly love". And by the rules of courtly love, it would have been considered vulgar to express love between two humans in openly, explicit terms. The concept was made agreeable to the ears of lords and ladys by expressing it in terms of birds choosing their mates and then courting them by way of their plumage display and dancing.
John Lydgate, the monk of Berry (variously, Bury), who lived ca 1370 to ca 1450, was a prolific writer of poems in the manner of Chaucer. He wrote a poem (A Valentine To Her That Excelleth All) in praise of Queen Catherine, the consort of King Henry V. It including these verses:
Saynt Valentyne, of custume yeere by yeere,
Men haue an vsavnce in this Regyoun
To looke and serche Cupydes Kalundere,
And cheese theyre choys by gret affeccioun;
One custom that was popular throughout the English speaking lands was for a number of young men and an equal number of young women to come together for a party on the 14th of February. The encounter would begin with the young women writing their names on strips of paper which were then placed in a basket. The young men would take turns in picking a paper strip from the basket. The young woman, whose name a young gentleman chose, would take him in hand and be his mate for the remainder of the party. It was also believed that the choice of mates for the St. Valentines Day party just might be the choice that would last through a lifetime of marriage.
The young woman who was chosen by lot by a young man on St. Valentines Day was known as his 'valentine'. Over the years, that idea would be manifested in the question: "Will you be my valentine?"
In the late 1600s and early 1700s, a custom emerged whereby it was believed that the first man a woman set eyes on, or the first woman a man set eyes on, in the morning hours of St. Valentines Day would be the latter's valentine, and accompany her or him throughout that day. Although this custom started out with all the elements of chance making the joining of hearts a random thing, there were, no doubt, instances in which the "chance meeting" of two young people were orchestrated by their friends.
From the foregoing, it would appear that Valentines Day was only for the adults and young adults, but younger children had their own traditions. They would run from house to house begging for pence by singing: "Good morrow, Valentine, First 'tis yours, then 'tis mine, So please give me a Valentine.".
Poor Robin's Almanack for 1676 presented its readers with the following verses:
This month bright Phoebus enters Pisces,
The maids will have good store of kisses,
For always when the sun comes there,
Valentine's Day is drawing near,
And both the men and maids incline
To chuse them each a Valentine ;
And if a man gets one he loves,
He gives her first a pair of gloves ;
And, by the way, remember this,
To seal the favour with a kiss.
This kiss begets more love, and then
That love begets a kiss again,
Until this trade the man doth catch,
And then he does propose the match;
The woman's willing, tho' she’s shy,
she gives the man this soft reply,
‘I'll not resolve one thing or other,
Until I first consult my mother.’
When she says so, ‘tis half a grant,
And may be taken for consent.
During the Colonial Period, there were no printed "valentines" as we know today. It was not until the 1790s that books of verses became popular. Gentlemen would copy verses from these manuals, and give them to their intended loved ones. By the early 1800s the first manufactured valentines made their appearance.