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Of Love and History – the Origins of Valentine’s Day

Of Love and History – the Origins of Valentine’s Day

From elementary classroom card exchanges to candy, flowers, romantic dinners, and even marriage proposals, February 14 has emerged as the second biggest “giving” day of the year after Christmas, with more than 62% of Americans celebrating Valentine’s Day. Not only do we send an estimated one billion Valentines each year, but we also buy 35 million boxes of chocolates and give 220 million roses on the holiday. Another 20% of celebrators splurge on jewelry as a gift. Altogether, we spend a whopping $20 billion annually on Valentine’s Day1. That’s some love! 

However, for the history buffs and inquiring minds out there, you might be interested to learn that Valentine’s Day did not originate as a Hallmark holiday. In fact, the beginnings of the holiday, by some accounts, are quite nefarious. Let’s take a look to see how history and love overlapped to bring us our favorite romantic day.


Many believe that Lupercalia, the ancient Roman fertility festival held on February 15 in the 6th century B.C., was the pre-cursor to our modern holiday. It’s thought that Lupercalia took place to please the Roman fertility god Lupercus. According to history, the festival was a bloody, violent and sexual celebration that incorporated the pagan custom of sacrificing a male goat (a symbol of sexuality), then using its skin to whip women, which supposedly warded off infertility2. We’ll spare you some of the lurid details, but aren’t you glad we don’t do that anymore?!

In an effort to Christianize an otherwise pagan festival, some speculate that the Catholic church introduced the feast of St. Valentine on February 14 to counteract those practices and put a religious spin on the day by using St. Valentine as its icon.

Saint Valentine(s)

Of course, the next question is, “Who was St. Valentine?” That’s where things get a little tricky, because there was actually more than one well-known priestly Valentine in that period of Church history, and myths swirl about each’s possible connection to the holiday.

One Roman legend says that Claudius II wanted his soldiers to have no distractions from their military duties, so he decreed they were not allowed to marry and even made weddings illegal. A Catholic priest named Valentine believed this to be unsavory and unbiblical, so he defied Claudius II by continuing to perform weddings. The Roman Emperor imprisoned Valentine for his insolence and later beheaded him on February 14 for refusing to forsake his faith, thus making him a “saint” for his martyrdom. 

A legend surrounding a different (or the same?) Valentine weaves a love story between Valentine and his jailer’s blind daughter, Julia. Having been imprisoned for helping persecuted Christians, the legend says that Valentine prayed together with Julia, and God restored the girl’s sight. On the night before he was executed, he wrote a note to Julia that he signed, “Love, from your Valentine.” He then gained a reputation as the patron saint of lovers.

To celebrate the martyrdom of St. Valentine, Pope Gelasius officially eradicated the festival of Lupercalia in the late 5th century A.D. and declared February 14 a day of remembrance for St. Valentine – though it’s unlikely he intended it to be a day celebrating love, as it eventually came to be3

What Do Love Birds Have to Do with It?

Probably the most direct link to our modern-day Valentine’s Day can be traced back to the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer. In 1375, he penned “The Parlement of Foules,” which is thought to commemorate the marriage of Richard II to Anne of Bohemia. In it, Chaucer describes a conference of birds that meet to choose their mates on St. Valentine’s Day – February 14: “For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, When every bird comes there to choose his mate…4” Soon afterwards, nobles were inspired to write love notes to their significant others, and as the practice spread in the late 14th century, the notes became known as Valentines.

First Valentine’s Cards

Eventually, Valentine’s day grew in popularity, especially in Chaucer’s home country of England. The oldest known Valentine was written from prison in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, during the 100 Years War, when he used “Valentine” as a term of endearment for his wife in a letter: “My gentle Valentine, since for me you were born too soon, and I for you was born too late, God forgives him who has estranged me from you for the whole year. I am already sick of love, my very gentle Valentine.” The two were never reunited, as Charles spent 25 years in prison and his wife died before he was released.

Slowly, people began making more elaborate cards and later added flowers as gifts to their love interests. Most often, the cards and gifts were given anonymously and signed, as the original, “Your Valentine.” In the 1860s, the chocolate mogul John Cadbury began selling his chocolates in heart-shaped boxes, which became another favorite gift item of the holiday. Interestingly, people also began sending what were coined as “Vinegar Valentines” in the 1800s. Though this tradition eventually proved too sour for those celebrating the love holiday, Vinegar Valentines were also sent anonymously for obvious reasons. The antithesis of love notes, Vinegar Valentines were sent by scorned lovers, cantankerous neighbors, or business and political enemies to disparage those they disliked5.

Enter Hallmark

When Valentine’s day finally spread across the pond to the United States, capitalists quickly pounced on what they saw as an enormous opportunity to profit from love. Originally known as Hall Brothers, Hallmark produced the first commercially printed Valentine’s Day card in 1913. Of course, others jumped on the commercial bandwagon with their love-associated wares, as well, from Sweethearts candy with their romantic messages to flowers, cute teddy bears, diamond jewelry, romance movies, hotels suites, romantic dinners, and wedding venues. And the rest is – well - Valentine’s Day history.

Still Making History

Valentine’s Day is a holiday still in the making, however, as it continues to evolve with the times. Going beyond the tradition of sending Valentines to love interests, the day has become an opportunity to show affection for any number of people in our lives. It’s now perfectly acceptable to send appropriately messaged cards to friends, family members, co-workers, teachers, and neighbors. Even Valentine’s Day parties and outings are no longer relegated to couples. Have you heard of Galentine’s Day? Celebrated on February 13, it’s a day for “G”als to get in on the fun of  V“alentine’s” Day by enjoying a day with their girlfriends. Thus, Galentine’s Day – a concept introduced by Leslie Knope, the fictional character in NBC’s comedy Parks and Recreation6.

Historical Significance

And that’s the great thing about history, whether it’s surrounding Valentine’s Day, WWII, baseball cards, or pop culture. You can study any aspect of our past that interests you, find correlations that you never knew existed, and even use history to make educated guesses about our future. It’s an exciting and useful major that lends itself to any number of careers. If you’re interested in studying history, Ottawa University offers a fully online Bachelor of Arts in History degree that will set you on the course for discovering the significance of the history of us – the human race. Call us today to get started!

Posted: 02/07/2023
Updated: 02/07/2023 by OU Online
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