Love it or hate it, Valentine’s Day comes every February 14th. While the romantic holiday inevitably becomes about cards, candy, and dinner reservations, the history of Valentine’s Day is a far cry from what we celebrate today. Much of the February celebration’s origins are unknown, but what we do know proves that human culture is fascinating — and not always romantic.
Before St. Valentine, there was an ancient Roman festival called Lupercalia. Reports vary, but NPR reported in 2011 that men would sacrifice a goat during this celebration in mid-February. Then, they’d whip women with the skins of the dead animals.
Even though this sounds pretty horrifying, women were apparently into this type of behavior. Professor of Classics and History at Yale University Noel Lenski (who was with the University of Colorado at Boulder at the time of the article) told NPR that women would line up to be hit by men since they believed it would make them fertile. Barbara Biziou for HuffPost also stated that the women were tapped (which is less aggressive than being whipped) with the animal hides. As Biziou wrote:
Another bizarre aspect of Lupercalia was the ritual of a lottery. Men would draw women’s names from a vase to then be sexually partnered up with them for the rest of the feast. Sometimes, the couple would stay together after the celebration and marry. Eventually, Christians took out the pagan practices of Lupercalia and adapted it into a more familiar version of the holiday.
When the Christians intervened, St. Valentine got involved — but even the history of St. Valentine is unclear. As the Franciscan Media reported, the Catholic Church removed St. Valentine’s Day as an official feast day in 1969 due to its unclear origins. It is believed, though, that there were two men by the name of Valentine who were both executed by the Roman emperor Claudius II.
The Valentine whose myth gets the most attention is that of the Roman priest Valentine who was executed on February 14th in the third century, according to History.com. The tale states that Emperor Claudius put an end to marriages in Rome because he thought men weren’t joining the army due to having families. Valentine allegedly disobeyed this order and married young couples in secret. He was punished by being beheaded on the day we now celebrate as Valentine’s Day.
The legend goes that Valentine left a note before he died, signed, “From your Valentine.”
The BBC’s version even noted that Valentine wrote that note for the jailer’s daughter, whom he had fallen in love with before he was executed. How romantic?
Beyond these two men named Valentine, Catholic News Service reported on another Valentine who is said to have been a bishop in Terni, Italy, a city 65 miles north of Rome. This Valentine is also said to have been beheaded. (Ouch.)
About 30 years after Claudius II ruled, Emperor Constantine became the first Roman emperor to declare himself as Christian and he changed the landscape for Catholics. But it wasn’t until the fifth century that Lupercalia got combined with St. Valentine’s Day. NPR reports that Pope Gelasius I was responsible for this integration as a way to stop the Romans from acting out their heathen behaviors.
Despite the myths about the romantic Roman priest, one historian credited Geoffrey Chaucer for connecting Valentine’s Day to love. The New York Times noted that Jack B. Oruch, who died in 2013, wrote that he had found no connection between Valentine’s Day and love until Chaucer wrote the poems “Parlement of Foules” and “The Complaint of Mars.” That wasn’t until the late 14th century.
Oruch believed that Chaucer may have been inspired to make St. Valentine’s Day romantic since the day was on February 14th — which was about when British people in the Middle Ages thought spring began.
After all, with its blooming flowers and mating birds, the season of spring does have some romantic vibes.
After Chaucer, other writers romanticized the holiday — like the very notable William Shakespeare. But in the 20th century, Hallmark changed the holiday as humans knew it, offering valentines in 1913 before mass producing them in 1916.
So while we may never know exactly how Valentine’s Day became all about teddy bears and flowers, its origins date all the way back to ancient Rome. As much as you may hate the commercialism surrounding this day of love, at least it’s significantly better than getting whipped by a bloody goatskin.