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The Real History of Valentine’s Day: It’s Not All Candy Hearts and Roses

From the Roman festival of Lupercalia to the execution of St. Valentine, the history of celebrating love has been fascinatingly brutal.

Credit: Africa Studio/Shutterstock

Across the world, Valentine’s Day is a time to celebrate love, commitment, and togetherness through thoughtful gifts and romantic dates. The moment February 1 hits, suppliers douse the candy aisle of the grocery store in red, making chocolate hearts and candied bears the stars of the show. It’s become an excuse to revel in one’s partner while showing the world how powerful love can be. However, this wasn’t always what the day meant. 

From the Roman feast of Lupercalia to the two martyrs of St. Valentine, Valentine’s Day history has been wrought with interesting developments. The path that this once blood-red celebration took to get to the pink-hued, candy-filled event we have today is a long one.

Women and Wolves

From February 13-15, the Romans celebrated the feast of Lupercalia. It was a fertility festival dedicated to praising Faunus (the Roman God of agriculture) and the Roman founders Romulus and Remus. Every year, priests known as the Luperci would begin the festival by gathering in a sacred cave. Specifically, where they believed the infants Romulus and Remus had been raised by a she-wolf (hence, Luper-calia). 

They sacrificed a goat for fertility and a dog for purification. From there, they dipped the goat’s hide into strips of sacrificial blood. This wasn’t to give the sacred skins to their loved ones, though. Rather, young women lined up outside to be whipped with bloody pelts. This made for a messy celebration as the women believed that smearing the sacrificial blood would make them more fertile. 

This presents a much less lovey-dovey interpretation of the holiday we’ve come to know, yet the violence doesn’t end there. 

In the manner of Roman fauns, the men were drunk, naked, and aggressive. Following the feast, they drew names from a lottery to decide which woman would be their partner for the evening. Each chosen was expected to remain with who had picked her for the duration of the festival – or longer if the match was successful. 

This led to many couples being created, though not, in the same way, they’re fostered today. The Romans preferred wine and sacrifices to roses and chocolates, which allowed them to create a unique way to celebrate the most visceral kind of lovemaking.

Saints and Sacrifices

Arm nailed to a wooden board. Credit: Photosebia/Shutterstock

The Roman influence on the holiday didn’t end there. They may also be responsible for the most common Valentine’s Day legends. Emperor Claudius II executed two men by the name of Valentine (or Valentinius) on February 14 of the third century. 

The first alleged Valentine served as a priest in the Roman Republic. When the Emperor decided that single men made better soldiers than those with families, he outlawed marriage for young males. Valentine, recognizing the grave injustice of this action, decided he would defy his emperor. He continued to perform marriages for young Roman couples in secret until the day he was discovered. Claudius ordered him to be put to death, and he was beheaded outside of Rome for defending young love. 

This is a depressingly heartwarming story of dedication. Yet, others contend that a second St. Valentine was killed for helping Christians escape Roman prisons. On account of their religion, Christians were often beaten and tortured for their faith, which constituted a double punishment. 

According to legend, Valentine sent the first “valentine” greeting himself after he fell in love with a young girl during his sentence – possibly his jailor’s daughter. Before he was executed, he allegedly signed his note “From your Valentine,” an expression that is still used today. Though there is no concrete evidence behind the origins of Saint Valentine, the legends paint him to be heroic, good-natured, and romantic. With the help of these characteristics, he became one of the most popular saints in England and France.

Popes and Poets

A rose laying atop an open book. Credit: Kateryna Upit/Shutterstock

Officially, the Catholic Church recognizes three St. Valentine’s, all of whom were martyred for defending love. Yet, it was Pope Gelasius I that muddled Valentine’s celebrations in the fifth century, when he attempted to combine St. Valentine’s Day and Lupercalia. His goal was to expel the remaining “pagan rituals” from Europe, and for the most part, he succeeded. 

His Valentine’s Day was still a far cry from ours, but his removal of Roman symbolism pushed the holiday toward the romance that it came to be known for. 

In the Middle Ages, February 14 was commonly considered the beginning of birds’ mating season in Europe. This fact, combined with the emphasis on St. Valentine, further lent to the sentiment that February should be reserved for romance. Yet, it was the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer that cemented this idea in his 1375 poem “Parliament of Foules.”

“For this was seynt on St. Valentyne’s Day / When every foul cometh there to choose her mate.”

Geoffrey Chaucer, “Parliament of Foules”

“Foul” rapidly came to be understood as a synonym for women, and the trend of writing Valentine’s letters spread. The oldest known official Valentine was written by Charles Duke of Orleans in 1415. It was a poem he sent to his wife while imprisoned in the Tower of London. Several years later, King Henry V hired a writer to compose Valentine’s note to his lover, Catherine of Valois. Not only those, but Shakespeare himself included dozens of Valentine’s letters in his works. 

All of these men helped to popularize the notion of Valentine’s Day in the latter sense, which is described by Yale Religious Professor Noel Lenski as “being a day of fertility and love… but the Christians put clothes back on it.”

Chocolate, Cards, and Consumerism

Man holding out a white box with a red bow to a woman. Credit: Maxbelchenko/Shutterstock

The roots of Valentine’s Day began with celebrating love, fertility, and sacrifice. However, it was not long before gifts, flowers, trinkets, and cards rose to be prominent symbols of the holiday.

In Great Britain, giving tokens of appreciation to members of different social classes became common in the 17th century, and this trend rapidly spread around the world. By the 18th century, advances in printing technology allowed greeting cards to be mass-produced. These became a great way for citizens to express their love for one another at a time when directly expressing feelings was discouraged. 

Esther A. Howland created the first standard “Valentine’s Card” in the 1840s. Known as “The Mother of Valentine’s Day,” Howland made elaborate creations with lace, ribbons, and colorful pictures. Her work in America inspired Hallmark, which today sells an estimated 145 million Valentine’s cards per year. This makes Valentine’s Day the second largest card-selling holiday (behind Christmas).

History in the Making

Man and woman making a heart with their fingers. Credit: Prostock-studio/Shutterstock

In addition to the United States, Valentine’s Day is celebrated in the United Kingdom, France, Australia, and Mexico. 

Each of these nations – and many others – spends the first days of February rolling out traditions set down centuries ago, revealing just how deeply ingrained Valentine’s Day is in society. From the Romans coupling up to modern-day school children giving out candy hearts, the holiday has worked to bring people together for generations, while still maintaining its macabre history.

Written By

Laurie Griffith is a second-year undergraduate student at the University of Florida studying English with minors in Mass Communication and Classical Studies. In her free time, she enjoys devouring young adult novels, baking poorly, and practicing gymnastics with her club team.

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