In a special edition of this week in history, we’ll look at the historic origins of one of the nation’s most celebrated holidays, Valentine’s Day. While the holiday has become synonymous with cards, roses and enormous boxes of chocolate, the history behind Friday’s festivities go back much further than you might think.
On Feb. 14, 270, 1750 years ago, St. Valentine was beheaded by the Roman emperor, Claudius II. If that doesn’t scream love and romance, then I don’t know what does.
Nicknamed Claudius the Cruel, the emperor was hated by his people, specifically those living in the city of Rome. Hungry for war, Claudius demanded that all able-bodied men serve in his army. Not wanting to risk their lives for a leader they had no faith in, Roman men married and had children earlier to prevent being sent off to the frontlines. In response, the emperor banned all new marriages and engagements within Rome, a decree that did not go over well with the Roman people, as you can imagine.
Valentine, a holy priest of the newly formed Roman Catholic Church, saw this injustice and defied the emperor by continuing to perform wedding ceremonies for young couples in secret, thus beginning his connection to love and romance. When the emperor learned of his transgressions, Valentine was imprisoned and sentenced to death by clubbing and decapitation. Legend has it, before his execution on Feb. 14, he sent a farewell note to the prison guard’s daughter, signing the card “From Your Valentine.”
In 496 AD, Pope Gelasius declared Feb. 14 as St. Valentine’s Day in honor of the saint’s tragic and untimely death. It is also believed, however, that Gelasius created the feast day of St. Valentine to stop the celebration of the pagan holiday, Lupercalia. In Roman times, the Feast of Lupercalia was the festival of love, where all eligible bachelors and bachelorettes would pick a name from a box and celebrate the evening with whoever the lottery chose for them. Disgusted by this tradition, Gelasius hoped the observance of a saint’s brutal murder would put an end to excessive love and affection on Feb. 14. Wouldn’t he be proud to see what his holiday has become today?
Fast forward 1,659 years from St. Valentine’s execution, another historic event occurred on Feb. 14 in 1929 in Chicago: The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. In keeping with our theme of love and romance, this brutal assault, which resulted in the fatal shooting of seven people, is the reason why America loves gangster movies and why everybody knows the name Al Capone. In 1920s Chicago, organized crime ran rampant with the rise of bootlegging in Prohibition-era America. Crime bosses like Al Capone fought for control over the alcohol markets in major U.S. cities, usually by murdering their rivals.
On Valentine’s Day 1929, Capone disguised his henchmen as Chicago police officers to stop the whiskey deliveries of his archenemy George “Bugs” Moran. Capone’s men made Moran’s thugs stand against the wall in a line and proceeded to shower the alley with hundreds of bullets, leaving seven of Moran’s army dead in the street. Even though all of Chicago knew this was the work of Al Capone, the police could not find enough evidence to convict him. Capone would go to jail two years later, not on charge of murder or violating Prohibition, but rather on tax evasion. Capone and the gangster lifestyle would become part of American culture when Hollywood got ahold of his story, resulting in three movies based on his life in the 1930s, and the success of gangster films in the 1970s and beyond with “The Godfather” and “Goodfellas” to name a few.
Gino Giansanti is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.