The origins of Valentine’s Day

Photo of bouquets.
Photo of bouquets.
Photo by Sadiya Teeple

The history behind Valentine’s Day has disappeared under all the roses and chocolates. More often than not, people have cared more about  heart shaped chocolates than the history behind the holiday.  But what is its  true origin?  

Ironically, Valentine’s Day had no correlation to love at first. While uncertain, some historians have traced its roots to the Pagan holiday Lupercalia. It was meant to celebrate fertility and agriculture, and dedicated to the founders of Rome; Romulus and Remus. Animals would be sacrificed before having their blood wiped on women and crops. (Such festivities have been a stark contrast to the often-romantic gestures during Valentine’s in modern times.) Despite these actions, it continued to be popular, and even remained under the Christian Roman empire for another 150 years.  

In the fifth century, the holiday lost its Pagan touch. Shortly after coming into power, Pope Gelasius outlawed Lupercalia in the late fifth century. The then Pagan holiday transformed into a day of feasts with several saints being seen as the guest of honour. The two most common, both named St. Valentine, also shared similar fates – , being executed by Roman Emperor Claudius II around February 14th in the third century. Since then, they have been remembered as martyrs for their efforts in promoting Christian values and sacraments under the politically orientated and corrupt rule.  

Historians, including Noel Lenski from the University of Colorado, have attributed and theorized  Valentine’s evolution to the Christians wanting to utilize the holiday’s popularity. For years, it continued to be seen as a Christian holiday, void of any mention of love and romance.  

It was not until a thousand years later that Valentine’s gained its romantic connotation – through literature.  

The first recipient of a Valentine’s Day card was most likely not up for any romance, as her husband, Duke of Orleans, had written to her while imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1415. Even so, romance persisted as always, especially from Chaucer and Shakespeare’s writing. Both incorporated Valentine’s Day into their poems and plays, each alluding Valentine’s to be a day of expressing love and appreciation. Some of their most famous pieces, such as The Parlement of Foules and Hamlet, mentioned Saint Valentine’s Day, increasing the holiday’s presence in mainstream society. 

Taking inspiration from the great writers, it became customary to exchange handwritten notes, and small gifts for Valentine’s Day by the 18th century. This was majorly replaced by printing during the nineteenth century. Since then, cards have been mass produced for the holidays, allowing lovers to proclaim their adoration for years. Cheap production and postage prices have made the process of letter exchange even easier, becoming an iconic symbol of Valentine’s Day.  

So, what now? Should everyone forgo the roses and chocolate? Or rather, let Cupid’s arrow direct them to learning the history of Valentine’s this year? (While watching your favourite rom com, of course).  

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