Every February 14, lovers from around the world exchange chocolates, flowers and lavish gifts to celebrate the most romantic day of the year: Valentine’s Day. But while this popular holiday is now known as a day full of sweet Hallmark cards and romantic dinner ideas for two, did you know there’s actually a fascinating — and pretty dark — history of Valentine’s Day that dates all the way back to ancient Rome?
If you’re wondering how this holiday — and its candy-filled traditions — came about, these fascinating Valentine’s Day facts offer a deeper look into the age-old celebration, including interesting details on conversation hearts, heart-shaped chocolate boxes and even the first Valentine message ever sent. Whether you’re spending this February 14 with your sweetheart or you’re using it as an excuse to eat tons of Valentine’s Day chocolates, read on to learn facts that may surprise you.
1. St. Valentine wasn’t just one person.
You may already know that Valentine’s Day was named after its patron saint, St. Valentine — but there’s actually some confusion surrounding which St. Valentine the holiday technically honors. According to History.com, there are at least two men named Valentine that could’ve inspired the holiday, including one Valentine who was a priest in third century Rome. As the story goes, this Valentine defied Emperor Claudius II’s ban on marriage (he thought it distracted young soldiers), illegally marrying couples in the spirit of love until he was caught and sentenced to death.
Another legend suggests that Valentine was killed for attempting to help Christians escape prison in Rome, and that he actually sent the first “valentine” message himself while imprisoned, writing a letter signed “From your Valentine.”
2. Valentine’s Day has its roots in an ancient Pagan festival.
Though some historians believe that Valentine’s Day commemorates the death of St. Valentine on February 14, others believe that the holiday actually has its origins in a Pagan fertility festival called “Lupercalia,” which was celebrated on February 15 in ancient Rome. Dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, and Roman founders Romulus and Remus, the day was celebrated by sacrificing animals and smacking women with animal hides, a practice that was believed to encourage fertility.
3. In the 1300s, it officially became a holiday associated with love.
At the end of the 5th century, Roman Pope Gelasius officially declared the date of February 14 “St. Valentine’s Day.” It wasn’t until until the Middle Ages, though, that the holiday became associated with love and romance, a tradition that first started from the common belief in France and England that birds started their mating season on February 14.
4. Cupid has its roots in Greek mythology.
He’s the charming cherub that appears on Valentine’s Day cards, often depicted with a bow and arrow — but how did Cupid become a common symbol of Valentine’s Day? According to Time, the figure can actually be traced all the way back to 700 B.C., to the Greek god of love named Eros, who was actually a handsome, immortal man with the intimidating power to make people fall in love. It wasn’t until the 4th century BCE that the Romans adopted Eros into the image of a cute little boy with a bow and arrow, naming him “Cupid.” By the turn of the 19th century, Cupid had become linked to Valentine’s Day due to his love-matching powers.
5. The first valentine was sent in the 15th century.
The oldest record of a valentine being sent, according to History.com, was a poem written by a French medieval duke named Charles to his wife in 1415. Charles penned this sweet note to his lover while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London at just 21 years old. One of the lines in the poem? “I am already sick of love, My very gentle Valentine.” Swoon!