History of Valentine’s Day: The Dark Origins of Valentine’s Day and Why We Celebrate It

| , | March 27, 2024

The history of Valentine’s Day can be traced back to ancient Roman and Christian traditions, evolving over centuries into the celebration of love and affection that we recognize today. Despite its commercialization, many people view Valentine’s Day as an opportunity to express their love and appreciation for their partners, friends, and family members.

Pagan Origins of Love Day: Roman Lupercalia

The history of Valentine’s Day stretches back to ancient times, finding its roots in the pagan festival of Roman Lupercalia, celebrated in mid-February. This ancient precursor to the modern romantic holiday was emblematic of the Romans’ deep reverence for nature and their deities, symbolizing fertility and purification through elaborate rituals. The festival’s origins in the sacred cave of Lupercal link directly to the mythological founding of Rome by Romulus and Remus, infusing the event with profound national and historical significance.

READ MORE: Countryside Festivals

Violent Romans Celebrations

The essence of Lupercalia was its unbridled energy and chaotic festivity, believed to foster prosperity and fertility across the community. During Lupercalia, priests called Luperci would perform animal sacrifices, a practice integral to this ancient pagan festival. The chosen animals, goats, and a dog, were symbols of fertility and purification in Roman culture. Post-sacrifice, the Luperci fashioned strips from the animal hides, soaked in sacrificial blood, and paraded through the streets of Rome. They would gently strike women with these strips, a ritual believed to enhance fertility and ease childbirth, demonstrating an early celebration of life and potential that underpins the way people celebrate Valentine’s Day today.

An integral part of Lupercalia was a matchmaking lottery, where young women’s names were drawn by bachelors from a jar. These matches, initially formed for the festival’s duration, often led to long-term relationships and marriages. This aspect of Lupercalia not only underscored the festival’s focus on fertility and coupling but also paved the way for the incorporation of romantic elements into its successor, Valentine’s Day.

As Rome transitioned from paganism to Christianity, the church sought to supplant Lupercalia with a celebration that could honor Christian values while maintaining the themes of purification and fertility. Saint Valentine’s Day, set in mid-February, emerged as the Christian alternative to Lupercalia, blending the memory of martyred saints with the continuation of ancient fertility rites. This shift reflects a broader societal transformation towards a more refined and emotional portrayal of love, away from the direct and vigorous celebrations of nature’s fecundity, yet retaining the core spirit of coming together and the celebration of fertility and love.

READ MORE: How Did Christianity Spread: Origins, Expansion, and Impact 

The Legend of Saint Valentine and How Modern Valentine’s Day Started

Saint Valentine, a Roman priest, became a beacon of love’s resilience against oppression during the reign of Emperor Claudius II. Defying the emperor’s edict that prohibited young men from marrying—believing that single men served as better soldiers—Valentine secretly conducted marriage ceremonies, championing the cause of love over the decrees of war. His defiance led to his imprisonment and eventual execution, but not before leaving behind a legacy of love symbolized by a note to the jailer’s daughter, signed “Your Valentine.” This act of love and defiance laid the groundwork for the modern celebration of Valentine’s Day, transforming his story into a timeless celebration of love that echoes through the ages, answering the call for love’s expression against all odds.

READ MORE: Roman Emperors in Order: The Complete List from Caesar to the Fall of Rome

Surprising Facts About St. Valentine

The identity of Saint Valentine is enveloped in mystery. Historical records hint at the possibility of multiple individuals named Valentine, each martyred for their convictions of love and piety. This ambiguity adds a layer of intrigue to Valentine’s Day, suggesting a collective memory of several saints’ acts of love rather than the deeds of a single individual. Among these tales, one constant remains – the veneration of Valentine(s) as the patron saint of lovers, with relics purportedly belonging to Saint Valentine cherished within a Roman church, drawing lovers and pilgrims alike.

The veneration of Saint Valentine’s relics has been a practice steeped in devotion and mystery. The Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome, claims to house a skull adorned with a crown of flowers, believed to belong to Saint Valentine, a site of pilgrimage and homage for those devoted to the ideals of romantic love. This physical connection to the past serves as a testament to the enduring nature of love and the sacrifices made in its name.

Today’s Valentine’s Day, with its romantic gestures and expressions of affection, mirrors the defiance and commitment to love demonstrated by Saint Valentine. His story, though rooted in the specific historical context of ancient Rome, resonates with universal themes of love’s power to transcend barriers and the human desire for companionship and connection. The transition from handwritten notes to digital messages and gifts reflects the evolving nature of love’s expression while maintaining the core essence of Valentine’s legacy.

The Date and Meaning Behind the Name

Valentine’s Day, marked annually on February 14th, pays tribute to the enduring spirit and sacrifice of Saint Valentine, whose acts of love under the threat of death highlight the day’s deep spiritual resonance. Beyond commemorating the execution of Saint Valentine, this date embodies love’s triumph over trials, celebrating not just romantic bonds but also the affection shared between friends and family. It serves as a powerful reminder of love’s capacity to transcend obstacles, uniting people through a shared commitment to compassion and connection. The choice of February 14th as a day of love and remembrance underscores the profound impact of Saint Valentine’s story, inspiring a reflection on the diverse expressions of love and the strength it provides in facing life’s challenges.

The Purpose of Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day stands as a global homage to love in its infinite forms, originating from the noble sacrifice of Saint Valentine who dared to defy for love. It underscores the profound lengths individuals go to celebrate and declare their love, serving as a catalyst for people to cherish and act upon their affections, thus deepening and forging new connections. This day has evolved from a historical remembrance into a diverse celebration of love, embracing not only romantic love but also platonic and familial bonds, and even the importance of self-love.

In today’s world, Valentine’s Day has adapted to digital advancements, leveraging social media to broadcast love’s message far and wide, making the celebration more inclusive. It’s a day that has broadened its scope beyond coupledom to acknowledge all forms of love, encouraging a universal appreciation and expression of love that transcends traditional boundaries. The modern iteration of Valentine’s Day invites an array of gift-giving that mirrors the varied dimensions of love, from personalized tokens to shared experiences, reflecting love’s evolving nature in society. Through these celebrations, Valentine’s Day reaffirms love’s central place in our lives, promoting a culture of love that is embracing, diverse, and universally accessible.

Valentine’s Day Today

Modern celebrations of Valentine’s Day weave together the timeless essence of love with the threads of technological advancement. The tradition of exchanging cards has been augmented by the advent of digital platforms, allowing for instantaneous sharing of love notes and expressions of affection, transcending physical distances.

This digital dimension has added a new layer to Valentine’s Day, enabling people to celebrate love in myriad forms, from romantic to platonic, across various social media platforms. The ubiquity of smartphones and the internet has transformed Valentine’s Day into a global festival of love, where expressions of affection are not just exchanged but also publicly celebrated, creating communal experiences of love and connection.

Unique Valentine’s Day Traditions

Valentine’s Day is celebrated with unique customs around the globe, showcasing the diverse and creative ways love is honored. In Wales, lovers exchange intricately carved wooden “love spoons,” a tradition that dates back centuries, symbolizing affection and care. Meanwhile, the Philippines hosts grand mass wedding ceremonies, offering couples a shared, communal celebration of their love. In South Korea, Valentine’s Day is part of a series of monthly love-related holidays, with February 14th specifically dedicated to women giving chocolate to men, a gesture reciprocated on White Day, March 14th, when men return the favor with sweets or gifts.

Italy, known for its romantic settings, celebrates with couples enjoying romantic dinners and exchanging gifts. In the city of Verona, where Shakespeare’s lovers Romeo and Juliet lived, thousands of letters addressed to Juliet are sent from all over the world. The best letter writer is awarded in a contest held by the city. In Finland, the day is more about remembering friends than romantic partners, known as “Friend’s Day,” making it a celebration of platonic love as well.

In Brazil, “Dia dos Namorados” is celebrated on June 12th, with music festivals and performances complementing the exchange of chocolates, flowers, and cards, showing how Valentine’s Day customs can adapt to different cultural calendars. Estonia offers a unique twist by celebrating “Sõbrapäev,” which translates to Friendship Day, making Valentine’s Day inclusive for everyone, regardless of their relationship status.

These varied traditions illuminate the many fun and meaningful ways to celebrate Valentine’s Day beyond the conventional dinner date. Whether it’s crafting a love spoon in Wales, participating in a mass wedding in the Philippines, sending a letter to Juliet in Verona, or simply spending the day with friends in Finland or Estonia, these customs underscore the universal and diverse expressions of love and affection that Valentine’s Day represents around the world.

Valentine’s Day Greetings and Gifts

The tradition of exchanging Valentine’s cards has evolved from handwritten notes to digital messages. Gifts range from the traditional (flowers and chocolates) to the personalized and unique, reflecting the wide spectrum of love and friendship celebrated on this day.

Valentine’s Day Fun Facts

Valentine’s Day, a celebration deeply rooted in history and tradition, is rich with intriguing facts that highlight its global significance and evolving nature. Beyond being the second-largest card-sending occasion, this day of love is intertwined with fascinating practices and tidbits from history that illuminate the complexity and depth of human affection.

  • The color red: Historically, the color red has been associated with Valentine’s Day as a symbol of love, passion, and vitality. This tradition stems from the belief that the human heart, which pumps red blood and has long been considered the epicenter of emotion, is the universal symbol of love.
  • The first Valentine’s greeting: While the practice of sending love messages dates back centuries, the oldest known Valentine’s greeting still in existence today is a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London.
  • Wearing your heart on your sleeve: In the Middle Ages, young men and women would draw names to see who their Valentine would be. They would wear these names pinned on their sleeves for one week so that everyone would know their supposed true feelings, giving birth to the expression “to wear your heart on your sleeve.”
  • Valentine’s Day and pets: In recent years, Valentine’s Day has seen a rise in people showing affection not just to their human loved ones but to their pets as well. It’s estimated that millions are spent on Valentine’s gifts for pets, showcasing the deep bonds between humans and their animal companions.
  • A day for friends and family: While Valentine’s Day is often associated with romantic love, it’s also a time when many people express appreciation for friends and family members. This broader celebration of love includes sending cards, sharing meals, and giving gifts to show gratitude and affection to all loved ones, not just romantic partners.

Hearts Across Time: The Eternal Journey of Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day embodies the timeless journey of love, uniting hearts and transcending cultures. It’s a day that celebrates love’s enduring power, inspired by the legacy of Saint Valentine. Across the ages, it remains a universal testament to the connections forged in love’s name.

How to Cite this Article

There are three different ways you can cite this article.

1. To cite this article in an academic-style article or paper, use:

James Hardy, "History of Valentine’s Day: The Dark Origins of Valentine’s Day and Why We Celebrate It", History Cooperative, February 14, 2017, https://historycooperative.org/history-valentines-day-card/. Accessed July 19, 2024

2. To link to this article in the text of an online publication, please use this URL:


3. If your web page requires an HTML link, please insert this code:

<a href="https://historycooperative.org/history-valentines-day-card/">History of Valentine’s Day: The Dark Origins of Valentine’s Day and Why We Celebrate It</a>

Leave a Comment