February 14th — the day of greeting cards and chocolate. Everyone knows that Valentine’s Day is named after Saint Valentine, but what does a saint have to do with teddy bears and romantic comedies? It turns out that Valentine’s Day has a complicated and dark history involving pagan rituals and religious executions. Here’s a brief history of love’s favorite holiday.
Leave it to the Romans to come up with a wild holiday centered around fertility. On February 15th, love-crazed Romans would take to the streets to celebrate Lupercalia. Lupercalia was a festival that began around the 6th century C.E. to please the Roman fertility god, Lupercus. Instead of reciting poetry and exchanging heart-shaped notes, they ran around naked, sacrificed animals, feasted, and whipped women — all in the name of fertility.
During the festivities, they would hold a lottery to pair random men and women for the duration of the festival. The matched couples would then go off and “celebrate” the holiday. If there was a match, the couple would stay together. If no sparks ended up flying, the couple would break it off and try again next year with someone new. Surprisingly, many couples ended up staying together and getting married.
The Catholic Church officially recognizes at least three different Saint Valentines. Each one was martyred in the name of Christianity, but their stories are murky, to say the least.
The first Valentine lived sometime around the 3rd century C.E. The Roman emperor at the time, Claudius II, thought that single men made better soldiers, so he outlawed marriage for men under a certain age. Despite the laws, St. Valentine continued to perform marriages to save the men from war. When the emperor discovered what he was doing, he had St. Valentine executed.
Another Valentine was captured by the pagan emperor Gothicus and put into the custody of an aristocrat. The aristocrat said he would convert to Christianity if Valentine could heal his daughter’s blindness. Valentine did exactly that and baptized the whole family as Christians. Emperor Gothicus eventually found out and had the entire family executed. Valentine was beheaded on February 14th.
The final Valentine got into a situation similar to the second and performed a healing miracle to convert a family under emperor Gothicus’ rule. He was also beheaded on February 14th of a different year.
There are many different versions surrounding the legends of the saints, but nobody's quite sure what’s truth and what’s fiction. In the 5th century, Pope Gelasius I decided to outlaw Lupercalia for being un-Christian and replace it with St. Valentine’s Day. Although it had a different name now, St. Valentine’s Day retained many of the same festivities as Lupercalia and remained a day of fertility and love.
As time went on, Lupercalia eventually faded away in the traditional sense, but St. Valentine’s Day remained — especially in Christian societies. It wasn’t until the 14th century when poet Geoffrey Chaucer became the first person to record St. Valentine’s Day as a romantic holiday. In Great Britain, February 14th was the beginning of mating season for birds. In his poem, Chaucer wrote, "For this was on seynt Volantynys day / Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make," which forever linked Valentine’s Day with romance.
The oldest known written Valentine is from 1414. A duke imprisoned in the Tower of London wrote his wife a poem and addressed it to his “very gentle Valentine.” By the 1600s, sending Valentines on February 14th had become commonplace.
Valentine’s Day around the world
Today, Valentine’s Day is celebrated around the world, although not every country celebrates in the same way. In Japan, women give chocolate to the men in their life. Friends and coworkers get Giri-choco and that special someone gets homemade Honmei-choco. On March 14th, the men who received the chocolate on Valentine’s Day have to return the favor on White Day. In the Philippines, Valentine’s Day is celebrated with massive public weddings. Hundreds of couples gather in the same place to exchange vows. The ceremonies are often free and include cake and even rings.
While most of the world enjoys the festivities of Valentine’s Day, some prefer not to get involved. Islamic countries typically don’t allow Valentine’s Day celebrations because they can be seen as promoting sex outside of marriage, open discussion about sex, and drinking — things that are frowned upon in Islamic society.