The history of Valentine's Day is actually pretty bizarre, but we're not judging
Picture this: The year is 2009. I’m a junior in high school. I’d just broken up with my boyfriend of eight months (and when you’re a junior in high school, eight months is a big deal, okay?) and was settling in for a very single Valentine’s Day, during which I ate chocolates my mom gave me (love you, mom) and watched Saturday Night Live.
During Weekend Update, Seth Meyers turned to the camera.
Ouch, Seth Meyers. Ouch.
Since then, I’ve had plenty of non-single Valentine’s Days, complete with flowers, chocolates, restaurant reservations, the whole nine yards. And now that I’ve tied the knot, my Valentine’s Days are booked out for, you know, pretty much forever.
But I still think about that sketch a lot. The ritual of Valentine’s Day is inescapable in the United States (and other parts of the world, too) — so much so that we’re all pretty much drowning in pink hearts and red roses come mid-February.
Having a “valentine” is marked as an accomplishment, even among those who claim to hate the holiday. Likewise, to be without one is categorized as some kind of personal failure. Declaring the holiday to be dumb and made-up by corporations won’t stop others’ pity (or a “better luck next year” from Mr. Meyers).
So where did this holiday even come from?
We’ve all heard vague descriptions of a certain “St. Valentine,” but for most people, the holiday’s origins remain shrouded in mystery.
I decided to do a little digging, and found that the holiday we love to hate (or hate to love?) comes from a conglomeration of various ancient traditions, with some good old American capitalism sprinkled on top.
So buckle up, folks. Here comes a history lesson.
Ancient Romans were into some weird stuff.
From February 13th to February 15th every year, the Ancient Romans got together to celebrate the feast of Lupercalia. During this totes-awesome party, the men sacrificed goats, then used the goat hides to whip the women, claiming it made them more fertile. You know, average party game stuff.
In between the whipping and sacrificing, dudes would pull names of women out of a jar, and get paired up with the woman they picked (for what I’m guessing was some fairly R-rated entertainment) for the remainder of the fest. Not exactly a flowers-and-chocolate kind of love.
But what about this St. Valentine dude?
Contrary to what you may have heard, St. Valentine was not a guy who was, like, really into love. In fact, there may have been two St. Valentines. Sometime around 300 A.D., historians say Emperor Claudius II executed two different guys, who were both named Valentine, on February 14th of different years. Since both martyrs conveniently had the same name, the Catholic Church honored them with a two-for-one St. Valentine’s Day holiday.
The fact that St. Valentine’s Day and the ancient Roman’s super-sexy love festival overlapped is, historians note, coincidental. That is, until the 5th Century, when Pope Gelasius wanted to do away with pagan rituals and combined St. Valentine’s Day with Lupercalia.
Sweetheart candy and cutesy cards didn’t come till later.
Fast forward a little. Throughout the 19th century, as the holiday picked up steam in Europe and the U.S., people sometimes exchanged paper cards or picked flowers with their beloved. But, as technology surged, so did commercial production.
In 1913, a little company called Hallmark made the first mass-produced Valentine. People went bananas, and the month of February was forever changed.
Valentine’s Day is here to stay, but do the holiday your way.
According to Sociologist Helen Fisher, the prominence of Valentine’s Day is our fault.
But people keep on buyin’. More than 150 million Valentine’s Day cards are exchanged every year, making it second only to Christmas in card purchases.
To me, the takeaway here is and always will be “you do you.”
If you love giving and receiving on Valentine’s Day, you do you! If you don’t, you do you! Go all out, don’t go out at all, or do what my husband and I do: Order a pizza and congratulate ourselves for not overspending on a holiday fixed menu.
Or, hey – as long as consenting adults are involved – you could even do as the Romans do. We don’t judge.