A History Major’s Take on Valentine’s Day: What the History of the Holiday Can Offer Us

by kwheele4 on February 13, 2021

Editor's Column

A Historical Perspective on Valentine’s Day

What the History of the Holiday Offers Us

by Andrea Traietti, ’21

The question of whether Valentine’s Day is a cheesy Hallmark-invented holiday or a meaningful day to celebrate love seems like an age-old debate, and with Valentine’s Day coming up this Sunday, it’s one that my roommates and I engaged in just this past week. Could the holiday that, this year alone, is expected to result in $21.8 billion in spending really be about love?

Perhaps it’s the history major in me, but I thought the perfect start to answering this question would be with some research into the origins of the holiday. To an extent, I was disappointed to find that there is no one tradition—or even one “Valentine”—to mark as the origin of the holiday’s history. 

There’s actually quite a bit of uncertainty about the holiday’s namesake, Saint Valentine. The Catholic Church recognizes at least three different saints by the name of Valentine or Valentinus, and there are a number of different legends about the several Valentines. 

One legend claims that Valentine was a priest who continued to perform marriages in third-century Rome even after the Emperor Claudius II had outlawed them. Another says he was sentenced to death after trying to help Christians escape from Roman prisons, and a third traces the practice of sending a Valentine greeting back to the saint while he was imprisoned.

Over centuries, Valentine’s Day would morph into the holiday (and billion dollar business) that it is today: the 1400s saw the first written Valentine’s greetings, Americans were likely exchanging hand-made valentines by the early eighteenth century, and by 1900, printed cards were beginning to replace hand-written notes.

But just because Valentine’s Day evolved over time and has somewhat uncertain origins doesn’t mean it can’t still be a meaningful holiday. What struck me about the various Saint Valentine origin myths in particular was the fact that they all centered around some act of service to others.

I’d like to think that Valentine’s Day can be both meaningful and a cheesy Hallmark holiday, that the two aren’t mutually exclusive, but in the end my research led me to a somewhat different conclusion: whether you’re single or taken, or think Valentine’s Day is a scam or a meaningful holiday, maybe we could all at least look at the day as an opportunity for service. 

Whether that service is the act of giving a gift to a loved one, letting someone know how much you care about them, or reaching out to a person in need, Valentine’s Day can take on a new meaning if we choose to do a little historical reimagining of the holiday’s various namesakes—and their acts of service long before the age of Hallmark cards and heart-shaped candy.