The History of Valentine’s Day [A Bloody Origin Story]

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Valentine’s Day is once again upon us. Roses, chocolate and expressions of love abound at this time of year. And so do hard-to-get dinner reservations, partners who didn’t get the gift they expected and the lovelorn souls who sit out the festivities on their couches.

Yes, just like love itself, Valentine’s day seems to be filled with pitfalls and disappointments. It’s not that we don’t adore romance. But when you consider what a high-pressure holiday this has become, one can’t help but wonder when all of this hoopla began.

Well, friends, we have looked into it, and we have to be frank. The history of Valentine’s Day is NOT the stuff that rom-coms are made of. Bloody, mysterious and conflicting versions abound when it comes to February 14th.

With all the beheadings and naked cult stories, it could be an episode of Game of Thrones. It may not be for the faint of heart, but if you’ll take a journey back in time with us, we will attempt to decipher what a Saint losing his head has to do with lingerie and candlelit dinners.

Try to stick with us, because there are various and conflicting versions to this origins story.

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The Saintly Version

Roman Emperor Claudius II offed two Valentines on February 14th back in the third century (although in different years). But while records of their executions exist, nobody knows which of our two bachelors would later become an excuse to send a Hallmark card.

To avoid getting bogged down in history speak and details that no one can confirm, we offer a more contemporary version of these ill-fated dudes.

Valentine Number 1:

So, Emperor Claudius was all against marriage because he felt like soldiers in a relationship sucked at killing, oppressing and all the other stuff that goes along with empire building and maintenance. So he outlawed marriage for young men.

And here is where Valentine number one, a priest, comes in. Totally opposed to this unromantic decree, he kept performing marriages in secret. He supposedly even had a ring with cupid on it so that Roman soldiers could find him when they wanted to get hitched.

He also went around giving out paper hearts to remind Christians of their love for god. Hello, can you say precursor to kindergarten Valentine cards?

Now all of these gestures sound very sweet and lovely. But in the end, they proved to be fatal as Valentine literally lost his head for his romantically tragic pro-marriage, anti-fornication campaign. Chop chop, you’re out of the wedding business!

Valentine Number 2:

Another equally dodgy and unconfirmed legend proposed that Valentine was all about “Jesus saves” and went around trying to convert pagan Romans into Christians. A habit that Roman Emperor Claudius II was not down with it.

Our second bachelor was jailed, which did not prevent him from falling in love with his jailer’s daughter, who he may have possibly cured of blindness. The night before his execution, he wrote her a love letter which he signed “love, your Valentine.” A phrase which millions of people rip off every year.

Despite inventing one of the catchiest phrases of all time, this Valentine was also martyred. Sorry dude, but no one really appreciates writers.

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So the Story Goes…

So that’s the download on the saintly (though dubious) version of Valentine’s Day. The only fact that can be confirmed about these stories is that two guys named Valentine were martyred. The rest is argued over by historians and lovers of legends.

It’s even been suggested that these two stories were invented by medieval Christians who had no problem with possibly fake news as long it was romantic, totally miraculous or involved some saintly bones.

This is probably the reason why so many Catholic churches across Europe claim to have remains of St. Valentine to this day. If you’d like to take a romantic tour of his bones, check out Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome, San Anton Church in Madrid, Whitefriar Street Church in Dublin, St. Peter’s in Prague and St. Mary’s in Chelmno, Poland, just to name a few.

What can we say? When it comes to St. Valentine, everybody wants a piece of the action.

The Pagan Festival Version (Let’s All Get Naked)


Nobody could do a pagan festival like the Romans. In fact, back in the day, ancient Romans celebrated a little something they called the Feast of Lupercalia from February 13th to the 15th. Apparently, a single feast day was not enough time to debauch themselves.

How did they do this exactly? Well, first the festival-goers went into a secret cave where Romulus and Remus (the founders of Rome) were suckled by a she-wolf as babies. Here they sacrificed a goat for fertility and a dog for purity. Yuck.

But the fun didn’t stop there. Next, they tore the goat’s hide into strips, dipped them in blood and took to the streets -naked! Once on the loose, the men would hit women with the bloody hides of the freshly slain animals.

Let’s not confuse this with a bitch slap. Women actually lined up for this treatment because they thought that it would make them fertile. Also, everyone was drunk. Which probably made all of this seem far more palatable.

Another fun feature of this festival was the matchmaking lottery in which men drew the names of young women from a jar. They would shack up for the rest of the festival or even possibly marry if the chemistry was right.

But how is this connected to St. Valentine’s Day? Well, apparently the church wanted to clean up this festival by substituting the X-rated goings-on with a more Christianized version held on St. Valentine’s Day and in which people kept their clothes on.

To add further confusion to the issue, the Normans also celebrated “Galatin’s Day” around this time. Galatin meant “lover of women” and also kind of sounds like Valentine. Apparently, there was a whole lot of (carnal) love going on at this time of year.

So that’s the “let’s sanitize pagan rituals and turn them into a Christian holiday” version of our shady history of Valentine’s Day.

The Poetic Version

So when did Valentine’s Day go from being so tragic and bloody to all swoony and kissy-face? Maybe it should come as no surprise that it was some famous poets that upped the romance factor.

In the middle ages, artists were all about courtly love, which they like to write poems about, sing songs about and even paint pictures of. This is where writer Geoffrey Chaucer (author of the Canterbury Tales) comes in.

Back in Geoff’s day, English birds paired off to mate in mid-February. Chaucer linked their egg making ritual to St. Valentine’s Day in his poem Parlement of Foules with the phrase, “For this was seynt Volantynus day. Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.”

We assume you get the sentiment despite the funky spelling. Anyway, the European nobility (who apparently had a lot of leisure time) dug this whole idea and started sending each other romantic missives during bird mating season.

Despite the fact that he was in the Tower of London at the time, even the French Duke of Orleans made sure to send his wife a note in February of 1415 (because if not, maybe she would have been pissed?).

In the letter, he called her “very gentle Valentine.” He also declared that he was already “sick with love,” by which he meant lovesick and not that he had an STD or anything.

Why even William Shakespeare’s Ophelia declared herself to be Hamlet’s Valentine. Yes folks, the talk of romantic love was at its height in those days. And English men and women were penning each other’s verses on February 14th ad nauseum in the following centuries.

So when you read a poem like “Roses are red, violets are blue, it’s Valentine’s Day, I love you,” you can thank Chaucer for it. Though he would probably be completely horrified to know he was partially responsible for a verse that crappy.

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From Gorey to Gooey

Of course, we don’t just pen verses on February 14th these days; we send our loved ones flowers, chocolate, candy hearts and greeting cards with cupid on them. So when did all of these Valentine’s extras come in? Let us fill you in.

All About Cupid

Cupid is the Roman version of the ancient Greek god Eros (who dates all the way back to 700 BC). But unlike the cute, chubby, mischievous but unthreatening little cherub we all know and love, he was a tad more menacing. This fully grown and handsome immortal shot golden arrows into people to incite love and used lead arrows to sow strife.

Naturally, a full-grown stalker of a god with a bow and arrow does seem vaguely creepy. So, is it any wonder that greeting card companies embraced the baby cupid with his kiddie bow and arrows set over Mr. Fifty Shades of Pain for lovers? We think not.

Love and Chocolate

Chocolate was not St. Valentine’s last meal before execution. Nor did the gluttonous Romans scarf it down during their pagan rituals. Chaucer had never even heard of chocolate, let alone send chocolate bon bons to the object of his affections.

So why does it seem to be such an integral part of the holiday? You can thank the English chocolate company Cadbury for that. Back in 1868, they created decorated boxes of chocolate in the shape of a heart for St. Valentine’s Day.

Naturally, other entrepreneurs soon globbed on to this clever sales tactic and flooded the market with this most delightful of treats. Nowadays, no Valentine’s Day seems complete without a bit of chocolatey goodness to chomp down on. Ahhh, the sweet taste of marketing.

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A Rose Isn’t Just a Rose

Roses may be one of the first things you think of when it comes to symbols of love from your Valentine, but it wasn’t always the case. So where were the roots for flower-giving sown?

Well, back in the 17th century King Charles II of Sweden took a little jaunt to Persia and learned all about the language of flowers at their court. Different flowers had different meanings of which he learned all about.

Influencer that he was, he introduced the practice to Europe, where it caught on. By Victorian times it had become popular to send roses as a symbol of love throughout the year and especially on Valentine’s Day.

So the next time you pay $100 or more for a dozen long stems on February 14th, you can thank King Charles II for this charming bit of cultural appropriation.

Greeting Card Mania

Though the first Valentine’s missives were written back in the middle ages, it wasn’t until the late 18th century that the greeting card companies started to produce a few cards. By the 19th century, they had become so popular in England that they were assembled in factories.

Here in the US, Esther A. Howland (Known as the Mother of the Valentine) began selling the first mass-produced Valentine cards in the 1840s. She was inspired by a valentine given to her by an Englishmen made of real lace and ribbons.

She forthwith ripped off the idea and started a booming business with paper lace and floral decorations she imported from England. With a little ingenuity and some copycat spirit, she put Valentine’s Day cards on the market and flooded the American postal system with declarations of love.

The Valentine’s Day Mashup

As you can see, it wasn’t one specific person or event that put Valentine’s Day on the cultural map. Instead, it took a series of brutal killings, some goat’s blood, more than a few poets and some ambitious entrepreneurs to turn the holiday into what it is today.

Yes, some may say it’s too commercial. But we say so what? Amongst the millions of Valentine cards that are sent every year, there are some very sincere declarations of love. And let’s face it, some people aren’t great at expressing their feelings, so why not let Hallmark do it for you?

And the roses, chocolate and jewelry? Not all necessary, but it’s hard to complain about them. We say that love is the best excuse of all to celebrate – whether it’s with a fancy dinner and presents or with just a single rose and a kiss. Or maybe by just indulging in a little chocolate all on your own.

In short, we love love. So happy Valentine’s Day, everyone. Let’s keep the tradition of possibly made up stories about dead saints alive!

You might also be interested in: 9 Unique Valentines Day Dates [For Rekindling That Romance]

Sherry De Alba

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