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 candy, 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 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
- Origin of Valentine’s Day
- History of Valentine’s Day
- The History of Love on Valentine’s Day
- Valentine’s Day Meaning Today
- Valentine’s Day Facts & FAQs
Origin of Valentine’s Day
So how did Valentine’s Day originate? Many believe that Valentine’s Day is named after St Valentine, a beloved martyr who was executed in ancient Rome 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?
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 his 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.
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. Before his death, it is alleged that he wrote her a letter signed “From your Valentine,” an expression that is still in use today. However, there is no historical evidence backing these stories.
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!
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 St Valentine’s Day, ridding the day of the unruly festival. Whether this action was to cover up Lupercalia or not is argued by historians.
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 love, 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.
Valentine’s Day Meaning 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.
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 and flying baby come from?
Since fertility was also associated with agriculture, flowers became the Valentine’s Day 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. Introduced in the 18th century by Charles II of Sweden, each flower had a specific meaning attached to it, making it possible to have an entire conversation using only flowers.
In terms of Cupid’s relevance, in Roman mythology, he was the son of Venus, goddess of love and beauty. He was known for shooting arrows at both gods and humans, causing them to fall instantly in love with one another. It’s not quite clear when he became associated with the holiday, however it is clear why his meaning became relevant. Watch out for his bow and arrow!
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!
- 6 million couples are likely to get engaged on Valentine’s Day (Huff Post).
- In 2020, total spending for the holiday is expected to top $18.2 billion (National Retail Federation).
- In 2019, 5.4 million households gave their pets valentine gifts (Finder).
- In 2002, 54% of Americans are expected to celebrate the holiday this year (National Retail Federation).
- In 2020, couples will exchange 190 million greeting cards during Valentine’s Day (National Retail Federation).
- In 2019, 250 million roses were produced for the holiday (Society of American Florists).
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! To help, 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 seasonal goodies perfect for making anyone’s day!
Happy Valentine’s Day!