The history of Valentine’s Day goes back to 3rd century Rome with the execution of a priest named Valentinus known today as St. Valentine. Every February 14th, millions across the globe send their loved ones heart-shaped cards and Valentine’s chocolates to express their love and affection. But this holiday that has evolved into the 20 billion dollar industry it is today has a not so lovey-dovey beginning. While nobody truly knows the real story of how the holiday started, many theorists have pieced together points in history to tell the story.

We took a deep dive into the origin and history of Valentine’s Day, and rounded up all the theories and legends (some darker than others) to trace the threads that lead to the romantic celebration it is today. Use the table of contents below to jump to the different sections and discover the full history of Valentine’s Day.

Table of Contents

couple kissing and drinking wine

Origin of Valentine’s Day

So how did Valentine’s Day originate? Here are answers to some common questions about the origins of Valentine’s Day:

Where Does the Word ‘Valentine’ Come From?

Many believe that Valentine’s Day is named after Saint Valentine of Rome, a beloved martyr who was executed on February 14th in 3rd century A.D. However, there were actually several men known as “St. Valentine” who were executed during the reign of Roman Emperor Claudius Gothicus. During a time when Christians were persecuted often, the execution of religious advocates known as martyrs grew. The stories of religious heroism by St. Valentine were honored by the Catholic Church with the celebration of St. Valentine’s Day.

Who Is St. Valentine Really?

The two most famous St. Valentines were a Roman priest and Italian bishop. The priest named Valentinus was arrested for his beliefs and put into custody. Valentinus made a bargain with the man who was guarding him, that if he could cure his foster-daughter of blindness he would convert to Christianity. The legend says that Valentinus was able to make the girl see and the guard and his whole family became Christians. When the emperor heard the news, he ordered them all to be executed.

The second Valentinus got into a similar situation; he debated with a potential convert and ended up healing the man’s son. The same emperor Gothicus executed him as well as the man he converted. Some believe these men are two interpretations of the same story, however, no one knows who the original St. Valentine was.

old fashioned couple kissing

History of Valentine’s Day

As time went on the legend of these martyrs developed into a Christian celebration of their death. It’s believed that the Catholic Church may have established St. Valentine’s Day originally in order to honor these men, who they believed to be martyrs.

The First Valentine

In medieval legends and what is often portrayed in modern media, St. Valentine was secretly marrying couples to protect young men from going to war. Other stories say that St. Valentine fell in love with the blind girl he had healed and that he wrote her the first “valentine” while in prison – a letter which he allegedly signed “From your Valentine,” an expression that is still in use today. However, there is no historical evidence backing these stories.

Lupercalia

Others think the Christian church decided to place St. Valentine’s feast day in the middle of February in order to cover up the pagan celebration of Lupercalia, also known as the fertility festival.

Lupercalia was originally a sacred gathering of Roman priests that went on from February 13th to the 15th. The pagan ritual included sacrificing a dog and a goat and walking through the streets covering women with the hide for what they believed promoted fertility. An equally strange part of the festival was the tradition of women placing their names into an urn for bachelors to pick from. The woman’s name they drew would be their match for the duration of the festival, and often paired couples would marry!

How Was Valentine’s Day First Celebrated?

So what is the real story of Valentine’s Day? Lupercalia was eventually outlawed. However, at the end of the 5th century, Pope Gelantis declared February 14th as “the feast of St. Valentine,” ridding the day of the unruly festival. Whether this action was to cover up Lupercalia or to honor the religious heroism of St. Valentine is argued by historians to this day.

couple hugging with roses

The History of Love on Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day’s first official reference to romance finally appeared more than a thousand years after the martyr’s death when Geoffrey Chaucer, a medieval poet, decreed the February feast of St. Valentinus to be related to the mating of birds. English birds mated in February and soon after Chaucer’s reference in his “Parliament of Foules,” European nobility began sending love notes during bird-mating season. Shortly after, Shakespeare’s lovelorn damsel, Ophelia, called herself Hamlet’s Valentine. Chaucer and Shakespeare’s romanticism of the holiday in their work soon began its gain of popularity in Britain and the rest of Europe. In 1415, Charles Duke of Orleans wrote to his wife while imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt. Even King Henry V hired a writer to compose a valentine’s note to Catherine of Valois, leading love-letter writing to be associated with the day.

women holding gift

What Is the Meaning of Valentine’s Day Today?

So, how did we get around to celebrating Valentine’s day with flowers, chocolates and love notes when it started from such a dark beginning?

As we’ve discussed, for thousands of years the middle of February was commonly known for fertility festival celebrations, so it is no wonder that romance is associated with the holiday. Whether or not Chaucer and Shakespeare can be fully credited, there’s no doubt they popularized the current associations surrounding the day. Today, people continue to send flowers on special occasions or to express sentiments of love and admiration. In addition to flowers, other contemporary symbols of Valentine’s Day include chocolates, candy hearts, and cards.

women smiling on a bed

Notes, Gifts and Chocolates, Oh My!

In the 17th century, it became common for friends and lovers to exchange small gifts and handwritten notes in Great Britain. Eventually, the tradition made its way to the New World and during the 19th century, along with the Industrial Revolution came factory-made Valentine’s Day cards. Cheaper postage rates contributed to the increase in popularity of sending Valentine’s Day greetings and Esther A. Howland pioneered mass-producing the first valentines made with lace, ribbons and colorful images. She soon became known as “Mother Valentine.”

The first box of chocolate was created by Richard Cadbury, who started packaging chocolates in fancy boxes in attempts to increase sales. He created the first heart-shaped box of chocolates in 1861 and today more than 36 million heart-shaped boxes of chocolates are sold each year. The first candy hearts were also made by Boston pharmacist Oliver Chase as medical lozenges used for sore throats. Terms like “Happy Valentine’s Day” and “Sweetheart” were not written on the candies till much later.

Where Did the Flowers Come From?

Since fertility was also associated with agriculture, Valentine’s Day flowers naturally became a gift of choice. For centuries, flowers have symbolized fertility, love, marriage, and romance. The history of giving your loved one Valentine’s Day flowers comes from the old-fashioned custom of sending floral bouquets to pass on non-verbal messages. Charles II of Sweden is credited with introducing the “Persian language of flowers” tradition to Europe by sending the first Valentine’s bouquet, using each flower to convey a specific meaning, making it possible to have an entire conversation without words.

Red and white roses are by far the most popular Valentine’s Day flower arrangements, with red representing “romance, love, beauty, and courage” and white representing “purity, loyalty, and innocence.” A thornless red rose can mean “love at first sight.” Other colors of roses can be used to indicate friendship (yellow), appreciation (peach), enchantment (lavender), or sweetness and grace (pink).

The beauty of the rose was explained by ancient myths of divine creation. The Greek goddess Chloris discovered a dead woodland nymph and transformed her into a flower; her husband Zephyrus blew away the clouds so Apollo’s sun could cast down warming rays. Aphrodite added beauty and Dionysus aromatic nectar, while the three Graces further bestowed gifts of charm, joy, and splendor on the newly-minted rose. The “Queen of Flowers” was then presented to Aphrodite’s son, Eros, the deity of love.

Statistics show that over 80% of Valentine’s Day gifts include roses, and that nearly a third of all American adults will purchase either Valentine’s plants or flowers as a gift. 

What About the Flying Baby?

In Roman mythology, Cupid was the mischievous son of Venus, goddess of love and beauty. He was known for shooting arrows at gods and humans alike, causing them to fall instantly in love with one another. Renaissance painters like Caravaggio created the enduring depiction of Cupid as a winged boy with bow and arrow that were later put on early 19th century greeting cards.

men smiling

Valentine’s Day Facts & FAQs

According to the U.S. Greeting Card Association, approximately one billion Valentine’s Day cards are sent each year worldwide, making it the second-largest card-sending holiday. Take a peek below for a few fun Valentine’s day facts and frequently asked questions about the history of Valentine’s Day!

Q: Is Valentine’s Day only meant to be celebrated between couples?

A: Valentine’s Day has become an annual holiday to celebrate all types of relationships! This can mean expressing how much you love your family members, co-workers, little ones, or furry friends. Check out our post on Galentine’s Day ideas which has become a twist on the typical festivities to instead celebrate friends!

Q: What to gift on Valentine’s Day?

A: Whether it’s your first Valentine’s Day together or your 20th, picking a gift for your special someone can be a difficult task! Valentine’s Day candy and roses are traditional offerings, while a Valentine’s Day spa basket adds a luxurious modern spin. To help you choose, we created the top Valentine’s Day gift ideas for every stage in your relationship!

Have we gotten you excited for Valentine’s Day? While the history of Valentine’s Day isn’t all chocolates and roses, we are glad to have a day dedicated to showing love for others! Every love matters so this year, don’t forget to send a note to your mom, snag a gift for your co-worker and show some extra love and appreciation to a friend who needs it. For more gift ideas check out our Valentine’s gift baskets perfect for making anyone’s day!

Happy Valentine’s Day!