This Is How Valentine's Day Came to Be
The holiday's history is complicated—just like your relationship status.
What do 3rd-century beheadings, a rowdy fertility festival, and the start of birds' mating season all have in common? Valentine's Day, of course! It turns out that the day of love and waxy, heart-shaped chocolates has origins that are a little more complicated—and a lot less Hallmark—than we thought.
Our story begins in Rome: Every February, the ancient Romans celebrated a festival called Lupercalia to honor Faunus, the god of agriculture, and Rome's founders, Romulus and Remus. Roman priests of the Luperci order would sacrifice a goat, then take blood-dipped strips of the hide and lightly hit women and fields with them so that they might be fertile that year. Yikes. Then, to keep the good times rolling, the women's names would be placed in a jar, and Rome's single men would draw names to determine their partners for the festival. If the coupling was suitable, these arrangements often led to marriage. An analog e-Harmony, if you will. The pagan celebration came to a halt in the 5thcentury with the rise of Christianity, when Pope Gelasius outlawed it once and for all.
Perhaps more romantic (but still a little gruesome) are the many legends surrounding St. Valentine himself. On February 14, in two different years of the 3rd century, it's believed that Emperor Claudius II executed two men, both named Valentine. The Catholic Church honored their martyrdom with St. Valentine's Day. While it's not known exactly why the men were executed (or if it was just one martyr, whose character splintered into a couple different identities over time), there are a number of explanations that have floated around for the past several centuries. One story says that Valentine was an imprisoned priest, who sent his jailer's daughter, whom he also allegedly healed from blindness, a letter signed, "From Your Valentine." Another legend says that Emperor Claudius II banned young men from getting married after discovering that bachelors made better soldiers than their married counterparts. A romantic at heart (or at least someone who thought the edict unjust), the story goes, a priest named Valentine began marrying young couples secretly; and when the emperor found out about these under-the-radar nuptials, Valentine was put to death.
The most light-hearted of all the explanations for our celebrating Valentine's Day in February is this: During the Middle Ages, it was believed that the birds' mating season began in mid-February, which ultimately helped transform the Catholic Church's feast day of St. Valentine into a celebration of love.
It was towards the end of the Middle Ages, too, that the exchanging of valentines began. The first recorded valentine was a poem written by the Duke of Orleans to his wife in 1415; he wrote it from the Tower of London, where he was imprisoned after the Battle of Agincourt. The practice of exchanging valentines didn't really catch on, though, until the Victorian era. It then made its way across the pond, where Esther Howland, known as the "Mother of the Valentine" began selling America's first mass-produced valentines. And the tradition stuck: Today, Valentine's Day is one of the largest card-sending holidays in the U.S., second only to Christmas.
But whether you're celebrating this year with chalky conversation hearts, or you're going it alone, just be thankful: At least you're not celebrating Valentine's Day with goat hides and an untimely martyrdom.