Every year on February 14th, lovebirds around the world scramble to find the perfect gift, the perfect card and flowers, and the perfect venue to woo their partners with on Valentine’s Day. The world will be draped in red hearts and cupids and romance, and love will be, metaphorically, in the air. It may be a comfort to know for those who are not a part of a couple during this love-smothered month that the history behind Valentine’s Day is anything but romantic. From sacrificial goats and dogs to imprisonment and execution, to the eventual mating of birds, the holiday – as well as its namesake, Saint Valentine – has a pretty dark past.
Most people know that Valentine’s Day is named after Saint Valentine, however, there are several potential saints in the Catholic church who fit the bill for this day of lovers. There was even a female Saint Valentine! So, who was the REAL infamously martyred Saint behind Valentine’s Day?
One potential hero was a priest in Rome during the rule of Emperor Claudius II. At this time, marriage was outlawed for young men, since Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than their married peers. Valentine brazenly defied Claudius and married young lovers in secret. Romantic! Until he was found out, of course, and subsequently sentenced to death.
Another Valentine was also imprisoned and later put to death – clearly, this was not an uncommon occurrence in those days. He was imprisoned for helping Christians escape the deplorable conditions of Roman prisons, where they were tortured and beaten regularly. While imprisoned, Valentine sent what is known as one of the first Valentine’s Day cards. Allegedly, he fell in love with the daughter of one of his guards and signed his letters to her, “from your Valentine.”
That one stuck, obviously – it is a common Valentine’s Day greeting even today.
While it’s unclear which Catholic Saint is the true Saint Valentine martyred and celebrated by the Catholic Church in honour of St. Valentine’s Day today, the origin of this romantic holiday may actually come from a Pagan custom – not a Catholic one.
A Pagan Fertility Festival
According to many historians, Valentine’s Day might actually originate from a Roman fertility festival, Lupercalia. In the middle of February, Roman priests sacrificed a goat for fertility and a dog for purification, after which they gently slapped women (honestly, you can’t make this stuff up) with the freshly slain hides of those sacrifices. The women actually lined up for this barbarism, as there was a belief that this would make them fertile. They were later matched with single men by means of a lottery.
Not quite the romantic tradition we know today. But how did this pagan fertility festival become connected to the Catholic Church and their Saint Valentine?
Claudius II may have been responsible for this as well, indirectly, as he executed two Valentines on February 14th (in different years.) The Catholic Church, at the time of Christianity’s rise to power, martyred Saint Valentine and outlawed the Pagan celebration of Lupercalia, deeming February 14th instead to be known instead as “Saint Valentine’s Day” to commemorate Valentine’s death.
It wasn’t until much later that the day became associated with love, however. The culprit? Birds. In France, it was a common belief – one that was even supported in some of the commonly flowery prose by Geoffrey Chaucer – that birds began mating on February 14th, giving the term “lovebirds” a new meaning. It wasn’t long before cards and tokens of love began to be exchanged to commemorate Valentine’s Day.
In fact, lovers worldwide have been exchanging tokens of their love for several centuries.
Valentine’s Day: A Hallmark Hoax?
Hallmark is often accused of creating the version of Valentine’s Day we know today, and while it is true that they did start selling cards for Valentine’s Day as early as 1913, history tells another story.
The first cards for Valentine’s Day date back as far as the 1400s, but the act of giving Valentine’s cards and tokens of love didn’t become popular until the 17th and 18th centuries.
By the 20th century, love was mostly expressed at length in beautifully written letters and poems, until Hallmark finally cashed in on the romance. By mass producing greeting cards with the words that people were desperate to say to their loved ones, Valentine’s Day was never the same.
Valentine’s Day: A day for Retailers
In truth, it isn’t your loved ones who are really benefiting from all of this lovey-dovey stuff on Valentine’s Day: it’s the retailers. A whopping 13 billion dollars are spent yearly on Valentine’s Day goods and services, of which nearly 50% is spent on candy alone. That is an awful lot of money to spend on chocolates in a heart-shaped box.
How you celebrate your love for your partner is up to you, and Valentine’s Day can be a great outlet for that heartfelt admiration. But if you are one of the many who is single during this holiday, don’t sweat it: at least you probably haven’t been slapped with a piece of freshly slain goat hide this year. We hope.
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