Valentine’s Day: The History Behind The Holiday

“A Pagan Festival in February”


photo by Hannah Ledrick

Hannah Ledrick, Staff Writer

While Valentine’s day for most of us is no more than chocolates, cheap teddy bears, and a long-awaited date with that special someone, the history of the holiday is actually quite shockingly dark. In the early 1910s, an American company began to distribute what we now know as Valentine’s Day cards. The company that is now known as Hallmark marketed flowers, jewelry, and candy in order to popularize this day.

Valentine’s Day occurs every February 14th. The ancient Roman calendar incorporated the mid-February celebration, which they called called Lupercalia, which celebrated fertility and practiced certain rituals. These particular practices are assumed to have affected the manner in which we currently celebrate Valentine’s day.

Valentine’s Day in the modern era often features Cupid, the winged baby with an arrow for love.  In Roman mythology, Cupid was the son of Venus, the goddess of love and beauty. He is known best for shooting love arrows at both the gods and humans. As a result, the arrows would cause the stricken to fall instantly in love with one another.

Lupercalia was a fertility recognition sanctified to the Roman god of agriculture and the Roman founders. To begin the festival, Roman priests would assemble at sacred caves where the infants of Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome, were believed to have been cared for by the she-wolf Lupa. The priests would sacrifice a goat to signify fertility and a dog to signify purity. The goat would be stripped of its hide and these strips would then be dipped into sacrificial blood.  The priests would then go into the streets and strike women and crop fields with the hides. 

Surprisingly, according to the history books, Roman women readily embraced the gentle slaps of the hides because it was believed to make them more fertile in the upcoming year. According to the legend, later in the day, all the women in the city would put their names in a large urn. The city’s bachelors would then each select a name and become joined for the coming year with their chosen women. Many of these pairs ended in marriage.

While several believe Valentines’s Day is celebrated mid-February to commemorate the death and burial of Saint Valentine, others claim the Christian church chose to place St. Valentines’s feast day in mid-February in an attempt to Christianize the pagan holiday. Initially, the pagan holiday of Lupercalia withstood the initial rise of Christianity but was later outlawed. At the end of the 5th century, the holiday was regarded as “un-Christian” when Pope Gelasius I proclaimed February 14 St. Valentine’s Day, meant to celebrate martyred saints named Valentine, though the history remains unclear in that regard.  The Catholic Church recognizes three such saints.

Though little is known of the real history of Saint Valentines, the fable possesses multiple versions. Belgian monks collected evidence for the lives of these saints from manuscript archives around the known world for three centuries.

One version recounts that Saint Valentine rejected conversion to paganism, resulting in execution. Prior to death, he miraculously healed his jailer’s daughter, who then converted to Christianity. Still, differing versions depicted him as romantically involved with a blind girl whom he supposedly healed. Other versions contend that Valentine was a priest who conducted marriages for young lovers in secret at a time when marriage was outlawed. Upon being caught, he was ordered to be put to death by the emperor. Yet another story yet depicts Saint Valentine as a bishop of Terni, a city in central Italy.  This Saint Valentine was executed as well, and prayers to the saint ask for him to unite lovers.

It was not until later, however, that the day became definitively affiliated with love. In some European countries during the Middle Ages, February 14 was viewed as the start of the birds’ mating season. Geoffrey Chaucer was the first to characterize St. Valentine’s Day as the day of romance in one of his poems. 

But as we all know, the holiday has evolved into a gift-giving, candy-hearts day of love. The dark aspects of St. Valentine’s Day have given way to a pure, and often sugar-coated, celebration of love. So while you’re enjoying your chocolates and stuffed bears on Friday, take a moment to remember the history behind the holiday. It’s not quite a Hallmark movie.