Today, the Valentine’s holiday is all about sweets and romance. But, Valentine’s Day hasn’t always been about crafts, cards, chocolates, and kisses — and it’s not even a modern celebration. Historians have traced its roots back thousands of years to the ancient Romans. Indeed, this pink-and-red holiday has seen some interesting transformations throughout history.
The next time you buy a bag of candy hearts with snuggly inscriptions, just remember how much this holiday has changed and which traditions we’ve held on to for centuries.
Meet the Saint Valentines
Valentine’s Day has Catholic roots. The dioceses recognize two Saint Valentines who were all martyred for their faith. All were also said to have been killed on Feb. 14. However, the exact history of these individuals is a bit tangled in lore, legend, and fact. Here are a couple stories.
Valentine the Officiant
One priest — a Saint Valentine — supposedly revolted against Emperor Claudius II’s ruling that single men couldn’t get married because having a family spoiled them for combat. Valentine resisted and decided to still perform marriages, but his rebellion ultimately cost him his life.
Valentine the Prisoner
Another Saint Valentine, it’s alleged, was killed for helping Christians escape prisons. The story goes that an imprisoned Valentine fell in love with a jailer’s daughter and sent her the first love letter signed “From your Valentine.”
Both of these stories have some obvious ties to romance, and both celebrate Christian love in addition to romance. Valentine the prisoner is even credited with sending the first Valentine to a loved one. The roots of this holiday, however, aren’t exclusively Christian. In fact, until Pope Gelasius officially declared the 14th to be a Christian event, there was another festival celebrated annually during the second week of February: Lupercalia.
Lupercalia: Valentine’s Pagan Roots
Though it’s speculated that Valentine’s exists to commemorate the martyrdom of the two Saint Valentines, it’s also argued that Pope Gelasius made the holiday official in order to replace the Roman festival of Lupercalia. Celebrated Feb. 15, ancient Lupercalia was a raucous affair that involved sacrificing dogs and goats (pagan symbols of purification and fertility) and whipping women with the slaughtered animals’ blood-soaked hides. There was also plenty of public nudity, drunkenness, and debauchery involved.
You might find this a bit gruesome — Pope Gelasius certainly did. Even though the people of his time didn’t follow the ancient practices exactly, there was still plenty of drinking and partying. In approximately 496, the Catholic leader rebranded the second week of February as a time to celebrate Christianity, commemorating a feast held Feb. 14 known as “Valentine’s Day.” However, the holiday didn’t become associated specifically with love until about 900 years later.
Other Romantic Associations
Though some holiday traditions, such as sending Valentine’s cards, date back to the ancient Romans, other traditions were picked up along the way. Here are a few examples:
- Valentine’s Day became an especially popular holiday in England and France circa 476-1300 — the Middle Ages. February 14th was considered the start of the birds’ mating season, which is credited as attributing some romance to the holiday.
- The Father of English literature, Geoffrey Chaucer, was the first person to officially link Valentine’s Day to romantic love. In 1381, the poet wrote “The Parliament of Fowls” and named Valentine’s Day as an occasion when birds found their mates.
- Shakespeare joined in the fun as well and is credited with romanticizing Valentine’s Day in his works. He mentions the holiday in his plays A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet. Of course, the author is also known for dozens of love poems that have so staunchly stood the test of time that they’re still considered classics.
- Charles, Duke of Orleans, wrote the oldest Valentine’s card that we have — you can go and see it today. If you’re ever visiting the British Library, check out the love note to his wife, which Charles wrote while imprisoned during the Battle of Agincourt.
- Giving gifts and making and exchanging handmade cards was an official practice in England by the 18th century. At this point in history, we began to see lace, ribbons, the Cupid cherub, and hearts associated with the festivities.
- This trend spread to the American colonies as well, but it wasn’t until Ester A. Howland started mass-producing Valentine’s Card that they became an American staple.
- The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century sparked a period of unprecedented growth and production, and capitalists were quick to see the potential of selling Valentine’s cards. Hallmark Cards of Kansas City opened its doors in 1913. Today, producing and selling Valentine’s cards is a billion-dollar industry.
It’s remarkable how many of these Valentine’s traditions have prevailed throughout history. Though we might not celebrate the birds’ mating season or attend a feast, love has long been associated with the 14th. This year, whether you attend a community event or find some quiet time to spend with your special someone, remember the history behind this romantic holiday.
You might also want to read The Couples Guide to a Non-Cheesy Valentine’s Day.