Holidays - Festivals

San Valentino’s history and St. Valentine’s Day

San Valentino’s history, what do we know about it? Do we know why this Italian saint is universally considered the patron saint of lovers and how did the celebrations we all know about come to be?

February is the month of the colourful celebrations of Carnevale  but lovers and romantics of all kind will be quick to remind us February is first of all the month of roses, hearts and chocolate boxes: it is the month of Saint Valentine.

San Valentino’s history tell us it’s not all about chocolates and flowers

Absolutely adored by the most romantics, mocked by many and embraced with flair by singles, who go out in group to celebrate their freedom, Saint Valentine is, in Italy as almost  anywhere in the world, the festa degli innamorati,  the day of lovers. As such, the day of San Valentino is criticized by those who sees it pretty much as nothing more than a commercial celebration, pumped up by chocolate producers and jewelery makers (… and restaurateurs. And florists. And… very much anyone producing or selling something that can be gifted). It is, in this, associated with other quintessentially “commercial” feasts, such as Mother’s Day, Father’s Day,  and  Women’s Day, on the 8th of March.

san valentino's history
Leonhard Beck – Heiliger Valentin (Veste Coburg) di Leonhard Beck – Bildarchiv Foto Marburg (

In truth, all of these have historical or religious roots, their meaning running much deeper than their – nowadays preponderant, one must admit– commercial aspect. Mother’s Day is celebrated in Italy on the first Sunday of May, the month liturgically dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Father’s Day falls on the 19th of March, the day of Saint Joseph (… I know, in the US is celebrated in June…) and the day dedicated to all women, the 8th of March, is on the anniversary of one of the largest marches for women’s emancipation and labor rights, that took place in New York in 1908.

It is undeniable these celebrations are today, for the most part, a heavily commercialized affair.  Take Saint Valentine’s day: it is estimated that, each year, about one billion Valentine’s cards are sent all over the world, whereas chocolate and candy sales usually reach profits of 1.011 billion USD. About 50 million roses are sent worldwide and more than 36 million heart-shaped boxes of chocolates are sold. And these data don’t even look into the hospitality and jewelry businesses, two of the main protagonist of the 14th of February’s gifts exchange.

Of course, there is nothing wrong in celebrating this day with your significant other or to buy chocolates.

…Actually, if you wish to be nice for Valentine’s day and make an Italian woman happy, you can send me all the chocolate you want, preferibly with peanut butter…

No…this wasn’t my point. My point is, of course it’s nice to celebrate and exchange gifts, but we shouldn’t really need a day of the year to remember our partner is awesome (or our mom, or dad, or all women. You got the geist!). And, more importantly here for what you’re about to read, do we even know why we celebrate love on Saint Valentine’s day? Who was he and why is he associated with it? To find all this out, we may need to take a little step back in time, to the centuries of Imperial Rome and Christian persecutions, the centuries when the Catholic Church was still just known as Christian and was only then creating its structure and liturgy. These are the years of Saint Valentine, and this is the time our story begins…

San Valentino’s history: the “real” Saint Valentine

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The Basilica of San Valentino, in Terni, the saint’s birthplace (by supergab at

San Valentino’s history tells us that Saint Valentine is the patron saint of Terni, a quaint town in Umbria. He is protector of lovers and of people suffering from epilepsy and was born in 176 AD in Interamma Nahars, which is, indeed, know today as Terni. He is venerated by the Catholic and Orthodox church, as well as the Anglican.

A pagan by family and tradition, as many other early saints, like saint Martin of Tours or Saint Augustine, father of the Church, he converted to Christianity when an adult.

The first information on San Valentino’s history  comes from the Martyrologium Hieronymianum (5th century)  the most ancient document on Christian martyrs extant.  In truth, its author is anonymous. Three centuries later, the Passio Sancti Valentini gives faithfuls more details about Valentino’s figure and about his martyrdom; as many other Christians of the time, he was tortured and beheaded at nighttime, in Rome, his body carried to his birthplace of Terni to be buried by three of his disciples, who were in turn captured, tortured and killed, too. All this is narrated in the Passio, which is a treasure chest of information on San Valentino’s history and  life.

San Valentino’s history: a second Valentine?

But there is a mystery in San Valentino’s history: tradition also speaks of a Saint Valentine from Rome, martyrized on the Via Flaminia  and buried there pretty much at the same time of the Saint Valentine from Terni, who is said to have died in 273 AD.

The Bibliotheca Sanctorum,  a document on Christian saints wanted by the Vatican Council II, only considers Saint Valentine of Terni real and attributes the second Valentine to a cultural transposition of the first, as the Passio itself mentioned the bishop had died in Rome, after being called to the capital to heal a youth (early saints were great miracle workers!) and being condemned to death by Placid, the prefect of the city, when he refused to offer a sacrifice to the gods.

However, the figure of this “second” Saint Valentine is pretty important to San Valentino’s history, when considering the “day of Saint Valentine”: to some, he is the one behind the association of the saint to lovers and love, and not the bishop of Terni. To keep things simple, we will go with the Bibliotheca Sanctorum‘s idea and will consider Saint Valentine as originary from Terni and tied to Rome simply because place of his martyrdom and death.

Saint Valentine and his cult: a pagan origin…

The figure of Saint Valentine, we saw, is rooted in the history of the early church, as well as that of Roman persecution of Christians in the years of the Empire. The creation of a cult was not immediate, even though its first attestations are early: it was, in fact, the Venerable Bede to speak of Saint Valentine and his feast, between the 7th and the 8th centuries AD. He does so in the Martyrologium Romanum. Irish in origin, but tied to the shores of Britain, Bede may well be the reason why the cult of the saint became popular so early on the island where, for the first time, we also find the association of Saint Valentine to lovers. This happens in Medieval times and, apparently, had little to do with the saint: let’s see why.

It seems it was in England that the figure of Valentine became associated with love, and lovers in particular. This, according to some, has nothing to do with the saint’s own characteristics. Strange, as usually this is not the case at all: saint Francis was known for his love for all creatures, hence he became the patron saints of animals; Saint Nicholas was known for his generosity and for his body being carried by sailors to Bari, hence he became at once a saint bearer of gifts and the protector of sailors.

Yet, plenty of people believe Saint Valentine became the saint protector of lovers because of the day when he was liturgically celebrated, the 14thof February, rather than for something specific he did during his life. On this date, an old folk tale would say, male birds would choose their partners. This belief was so popular that even Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of the Canterbury Tales, used it in the Parlement of Foules as the backdrop for the main events of the tale, where three male royal eagles fought over the attention of one female.

San Valentino's history
Saint Valentine’s relics, in the Terni basilica dedicated to him (by freakit at

However, it is also true that the Romans, once again, may claim the day to themselves: it was traditional to celebrate the god-faun Lupercus on the 15th of February each year, during what was called Lupercalia. The name itself derives from the lupercale, a cave where Lupercus’ priests would go in pilgrimage on the day, which was believed to be where the she-wolf had brought up Romolus and Remus. During the Lupercalia’ s main ritual, a sacrifice would take place; two of Lupercus’ priests would then be lead to an altar and marked on the forehead with a knife dipped in the sacrificed animal’s blood, which was then cleaned off their faces with milk-soaked cotton. The ritual aimed at giving to the luperci the gift of fertility, which they would spread by running around the Palatine hill and hitting (hopefully without hurting them!) women and girls with the skins of the sacrificed animal. During the Lupercalia, it was also customary for boys to choose a girl to whom declare their amorous interest.

Apparently, this custom was exported to Britain by Roman soldiers stationed there during the conquest, which is the reason why the celebration of Saint Valentine as we know it today seem to hail from there. The association between Saint Valentine and lovers spread throughout Europe, even though it kept particularly strong in northern regions. For instance, the habit of choosing the name of a favorite girl to whom declare one’s love kept very much alive in Britain up to recent years.

… Or hagiographical roots?

Careful readers of Saint Valentine’s hagiography, however, are quick to point out that the bishop was very much in tune with lovers and that it is on these tales we should root his cult. When already jailed in Rome, Valentine was given the opportunity to spend the rest of his jail time in the house of a Roman noble family, in charge of his confinement. Here, he healed their young, blind daughter, of whom he was very fond. Before dying, he wrote a touching, last message to her, signed simply from your Valentine. And it is so, then, that the content of millions of Valentine’s card was created.

But this is not all: another legend tells the bishop reconciliated two fighting lovers by giving them a rose and asking them to hold hands. Another story sees Valentine as protector of the difficult love of a severely ill woman and a Roman centurion, whose union was obstacled by her family. With the young woman near death, Valentine decided to baptize the two lovers and then to join them in holy marriage, after which both of them fell into a peaceful, profound sleep.

Either way you decide to take it, the ties of Valentine to love are strong: fertility rituals, healed girls receiving loving letters, arguing couples reconciling. It comes as no surprise Valentine is the saint protector of lovers.

Some curiosities about Saint Valentine’s Day

Do you need some trivia to keep your date entertained on Valentine’s night? We got you covered…

  • “50 Sfumature di grigio” ( Fifty shades of grey ) is not the quintessential romantic movie, but can give you some hints on how to spend this day…
  • It was Pope Gelasius, around 498 AD, to declare the 14th of February the day of Saint Valentine. This means we’ve been celebrating it for more than 1500 years.
  • A hefty 53% of women declared that they would dump their boyfriends if they didn’t give them anything on Valentine’s day. Boys, you’ve been warned.
  • The first heart-shaped box of chocolate was sold in 1868 and was created by British chocolatier Richard Cadbury.
  • Apparently, 15% of US women send flowers to themselves on Valentine’s day each year. Am I the only one to find this slightly desperate?
  • More about flowers: men buy around 73% of all flowers sold for Valentine’s, whereas women only 23%.
  • 64% of US men fail to make plans in advance for Valentine’s day with their partner. Apparently, the sit-com stereotype of the clumsy boyfriend forgetting the 14th of February mirrors reality to a T.
  • Interestingly enough, 9 million Americans buy Valentine’s gifts for their pets.
  • Italy! The capital of Saint Valentine is on our shores: Verona, home to Shakesperean lovers Romeo and Juliet, receives at least 1000 letters to Juliet on Valentine’s day each year.
  • Presents! Stats show that women buy 85% of all Valentine’s gifts.
  • Kids are lucky on Valentine’s day: they receive up to 39% of all candy and gift purchased.
  • In Finland, Saint Valentine is the day of friendship and not simply of lovers.
  • In Denmark, women traditionally ask their partner’s hand on Valentine’s. This habit originated, very likely, in the Middle Ages, when the Scottish queen Margareta decreed women could propose to their men only during the month of February. In case of refusal, the woman had the right to demand from his lover 12 pairs of handmade silk gloves.
  • Romanians do not celebrate lovers on Valentine’s day, but 10 days later, on the 24th of February. Their celebration is linked to Romania’s own mythology and pre-Christian beliefs.
  • Just as in Romania, in Wales lovers are not celebrated on the 14th of February, but 10 days earlier, on the 25th of January, on the day of Saint Dwynwen, considered the patron protector of Welsh lovers. It used to be customary to carve wooden spoons with hearts, locks and keys as a symbol of love.
  • In Japan, it is girls who buy chocolates to their boyfriends, but not only. In fact, also male friends, or work collegues can be gifted chocolates on Valentine’s. A month later, on the 14th of March, it will be the boys’ turn to buy something nice back and gift it to women. The same happens in South Korea where, however, an extra date is added: on the 14th of April, if no gifts were received neither on Valentine’s, nor on the 14th of March, people go to the restaurant –rigorously alone– and order squid ink noodles. These are black and symbolize the sadness of not having received any Valentine. For this reason, the 14th of April is called black day.

saint valentine
A typical message found in a Bacio Perugina (by Spinoziano at

Most of these data could be applied to Italy, too, but there are some differences. It’s unusual, for instance, to buy Valentine’s for children or pets, at least as far as I know, whereas the fact women are tendentially more into it than men rings true for us as well. Chocolates are a favorite purchase and we even have our quintessential Valentine’s day variety, the Baci Perugina: wrapped in a pretty silver foil covered with romantic blue stars, each bacio comes with a love aphorism inside. They’ve been around for decades and they are the ultimate Saint Valentine sweet treat. Today, you can even personalize the messages inside, and surprise your sweetheart with a declaration of love, fidelity or even a proposal.  Most of the international variants on the day mentioned above are not known here, even though it has been becoming relatively popular, among singles, to exchange Valentine’s with friends.

Here we go, so: we’ve discovered a bit more about the “real” Saint Valentine, a figure shaded in mystery (were there one or two of them?), whose cult may or may not be entirely Christian (Lupercalia, anyone?) and whose onomastic is celebrated somehow differently, depending on where you live. It is, in general, a day dedicated to people we love, when it is nice to remind them so with little presents, trinkets or flowers. The point is, shouldn’t we always feel like to do it, do we really need a specific moment of the year to show others we care? This is the main criticism brought to the day of Saint Valentine, yet, there is nothing wrong in celebrating it. Chocolates are always welcome, cards are lovely to receive and flowers brighten up a room in no time.

Provided this is not the only day of the year when you tell your sweetheart you love them, Saint Valentine is just a lovely moment to share with someone special.

And chocolate. Don’t forget the chocolate!

By Francesca Bezzone

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