Cupid writing a valentine on a scroll

Valentine card from the 1880s. (Photograph from the Library of Congress)

Another Valentine’s Day has come and gone. Whether you enjoy the sentimental cards and red hearts everywhere, or you agree with the local reporter from 1898 that the holiday is “a nuisance,” have you ever wondered why we celebrate it each year?

Everyone has heard the basic tale about St. Valentine; he was a 3rd century CE Christian priest and physician who was martyred because he offered comfort to persecuted Christians in defiance of the Roman emperor. It turns out that this story likely isn’t true. In fact, very little is known about the man, including exactly which of the three St. Valentines listed in early church records he is. The distinct lack of historical evidence means much of what we’ve heard about St. Valentine was from later, less reliable sources, likely to explain how his feast day became associated with love.

One possible origin for our Valentine’s Day is the Roman fertility festival called Lupercalia, which was celebrated between February 13th and 15th. During the festival, priests made animal sacrifices at the cave where (it was believed) a she-wolf suckled the twins Romulus and Remus. The hides of sacrificed goats were then cut into strips that male participants, in varying stages of undress, would use to hit women they encountered as they ran around the Palatine Hill. According to ancient sources, this would ensure women a safe pregnancy and even aid in fertility. In the 5th century CE, Pope Gelasius I supposedly outlawed the rowdy pagan festival and substituted February 14th as a feast day for St. Valentine.

It is incontrovertibly true that the poet Geoffrey Chaucer was responsible for the first recorded connection between St. Valentine and love. In the 14th century, St. Valentine’s feast day coincided with what the English then considered the beginning of spring, a time characterized by the mating and nesting of birds. Because of this, Chaucer referenced the day in several poems as one for love and matchmaking. Later writers, most notably Shakespeare, utilized this theme as well, cementing the link between St. Valentine and love. By the 1800s, February 14th was firmly embraced by the British as a day to express their love, a tradition that naturally spread to the United States. During the 19th century, the mass production of valentine cards, along with a cheaper and more reliable postal service, further expanded the celebration of the holiday.

How did residents of the Mendocino coast celebrate this day? Archives from the Mendocino Beacon provide some insight. The newspaper’s earliest mention of Valentine’s Day came in February, 1878, when readers were reminded of the impending holiday and advised to select their valentines. During every February in the 1880s, the “Local Intelligence” section of the paper speculated on the number and nature of valentines being handled by the local postmen. One reporter in 1888 went so far as to predict that “the custom of sending valentines will soon be a thing of the past,” based on the dwindling numbers being processed by the post office.

However, throughout the first half of the 20th century, the Beacon reported on parties and dances at schools, social clubs/halls, and even churches just about every February. One Valentine’s dance at the Druid Hall in Point Arena in 1947 “drew a large crowd who enjoyed the coast music” and didn’t let the rainy weather “dampen their enjoyment.” Anderson High School’s 1945 Valentine’s Day festivities kicked off with a boys versus girls basketball game, followed by dancing, games and a raffle for a heart-shaped box of candy. There were even multiple mentions of Valentine’s Day-themed birthday parties thrown for some children born in February.

Clearly, the conjecture about the demise of Valentine’s Day was just that. Far from thinking it a nuisance, many people gladly celebrate love and support the greeting card industry, untroubled by the facts about St. Valentine.

The Kelley House Museum is open from 11AM to 3PM Friday through Sunday. If you have a question for the curator, reach out to to make an appointment. Walking tours of the historic district depart from the Kelley House regularly.