Valentine’s Day Quick Facts

  • Western Calendar Date: February 14
  • Jewish Calendar Month: Shevat or Adar
  • Duration: One Day
  • Established: A.D. 496

Also see Tu B’Av, the “Jewish Valentine’s Day.”

Purpose of Valentine’s Day

Originally a saint’s day venerating the martyr Valentine, Valentine’s Day has now become a catchall celebration of romantic love. Couples fête each other with wine, roses and chocolates, spending more money on this holiday than almost any other (around $20 billion in America alone in 2016!). In recent years, Valentine’s Day has come under fire for being commercial and consumerist in nature, and has even been banned in certain countries, but these efforts have done little to curb the popularity of the Day of Love.

Origin of Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day as we know it today is a celebration of love, but it didn’t start off in such a lovey-dovey way. February 14, 270: Tradition has it that Valentine, a priest in Rome during the reign of Claudius II, was beheaded along the Flaminian Way. The Roman Martyrology tells us: “At Rome, on the Flaminian road, in the time of the emperor Claudius, the birthday of blessed Valentine, priest and martyr, who after having cured and instructed many persons, was beaten with clubs and beheaded” (14 February). The Nuremberg Chronicle, published in 1493, offers a bit more color:

Valentine (Valentinus), a Roman priest, after giving evidence of exceptional learning and writing, was imprisoned by the Emperor Claudius; and being asked his opinion concerning the pagan gods, said: Jupiter, Mercury, and the other gods were miserable human beings. Afterwards he enlightened the daughter of Asterius. He brought her and forty-nine persons of her household to the Christian faith. Finally, at the command of the emperor, he was severely beaten with clubs, and was beheaded on the 14th day of the month of February.[1]

According to tradition, after Valentine restored the sight of the jailer Asterius’ daughter (“enlightened” her) as proof of the Christian God, the two of them fell deeply in love and he left her a note signed “from Your Valentine,” thereby originating the popular sign-off. It is also believed that Valentine was arrested on the charge of performing secret marriages in direct opposition to Claudius, who had issued a decree forbidding marriage in the hopes of recruiting soldiers more easily by weakening family ties. While under Claudius’ custody Valentine briefly won favor, but an attempt at converting the anti-Christian Claudius cost him his life.

The Roman Catholic Church canonized Valentine, and Pope Gelasius I officially established St. Valentine’s Day in A.D. 496. St. Valentine is now regarded as “the Patron Saint of affianced couples, bee keepers [sic], engaged couples, epilepsy, fainting, greetings, happy marriages, love, lovers, plague, travellers, and young people.”[2]

Other explanations abound as to the origin of Valentine’s Day. One says that Gelasius I established Valentine’s Day in a bid to Christianize the Roman holiday of Lupercalia, a pagan celebration of the Roman god “Lupercus” (Greek: Pan). This holiday, which took place on the Ides of February (February 15), involved a strange sacrificial rite in which priests softly slapped women with the hides of slain goats. This pagan ritual was thought to increase fertility, and the day became an auspicious occasion for matchmaking, which may also have informed the holiday’s subsequent romantic character.

How Valentine’s Day Is Observed

It wasn’t until modern times that Valentine’s Day achieved any level of widespread popularity. A turning point came in 1840, when Esther Howland, “Mother of the Valentine,” sent the first valentine. Later, as Hallmark began mass-producing greeting cards in the early twentieth century, her innovation took off. Now, every year an estimated billion paper valentines are exchanged, especially among schoolchildren and by mail. Friends and lovers decorate cards with bits of lace, ribbon and glitter as tokens of their affection, as well as giving one another flowers and chocolates.

In recent years, those who have no significant other or spouse with whom to celebrate often band together with friends to celebrate “Singles Awareness Day,” a sort of anti–Valentine’s Day.

Special Synagogue Readings for Valentine’s Day

None, but it might be nice to have some.

Traditional Customs and Folklore of Valentine’s Day

A folk belief developed in the Middle Ages that Valentine’s Day marked the start of the mating season for birds. Geoffrey Chaucer (1342–1400) popularized this belief in his Middle English-language poem, “The Parliament of Fowls” (1381–1382), a lighthearted dream-vision in which birds of various species assemble to choose their mates. Chaucer writes: “For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day, / When every fowl cometh there to choose his make [mate]” (ll. 309–310, spelling modernized).

Charles, Duke of Orléan, is believed to have written the first Valentine’s Day poem during his imprisonment at the Tower of London after the Battle of Agincourt[3]. The ballad, addressed to his wife, begins:

Je suis desja d’amour tanné,

Ma tres doulce Valentinée,

Car pour moi fustes trop tart née,

Et moy pour vous fus trop tost né

Translation:

Already am I sick with love,

My very sweetest Valentine,

For you for me were born too late,

And I for you was born too soon

Shakespeare carried on the literary legacy of Valentine’s Day with several references to the holiday in his plays. From A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “Good morrow, friends. Saint Valentine is past: / Begin these wood-birds but to couple now?” (4.1.145–46). These lines, like Chaucer’s, attest to the folk belief that Valentine’s Day marked the start of the mating season for birds and lovers alike.

Valentine’s Day and the Bible

From the beginning Jews have conceived of their relationship to God as a spiritual marriage; thus, the Song of Songs is not only an ecstatic poem of love but a metaphor for the zeal with which God loves us and with which we ought to love God (as the V’ahavta tells us: “with all your mind, with all your soul and with all your might”). At Jewish marriages, the words, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (Song of Solomon 6:3) are often recited, as well as being engraved on the inside of wedding rings and embroidered on the chuppah. These words speak not only of the bonds of earthly marriage but the eternal marriage of God to his covenanted people. In Sephardic communities there is even a tradition on Shavuot of signing ketubot (wedding contracts; sing. ketubah) to signify this spousal relationship.

The Jewish understanding of human love as a reflection of God’s love is carried forward in the New Testament. We read in 1 John: “We love Him, because He first loved us” (4:19). And 1 Corinthians gives us a vision of perfect love, as it can never be practiced on earth but which we aspire to in our walk with the Lord:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.

1 Corinthians 13:4-8

End Notes

  1. Hartmann Schedel, “The Sixth Age of the World,” from First English edition of the Nuremberg chronicle: being the Liber chronicarum of Dr. Hartmann Schedel (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Digital Collections Center, 2010), Folio CXXII Recto.
  2. St. Valentine,” Catholic Online, accessed June 05, 2017, http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=159.
  3. The Battle of Agincourt was a decisive English victory during the Hundred Years War that took place on Saint Crispin’s Day, 1415. It later became the setting for the famous “St. Crispin’s Day Speech” in Shakespeare’s Henry V.

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