The Real History of Valentine’s Day, Explained

valentine's day history

Love it or hate it, it happens every year. Just about as soon as the calendars turn over, love is in the air — and the shopping centers. Throughout January and early February, you can’t turn around without seeing boxes of candy, teddy bears holding lace-trimmed hearts, cards of all sizes and sentiments — decor to spread the love around every corner of your house and attire so you can wear your heart on your sleeve. Some couples really go all out; getting a table for two at a white tablecloth restaurant (and undoubtedly picking out the perfect last-minute Valentine’s Day gift) to show their devotion. Others might prefer to go low-key or ignore the holiday altogether. And kids aren’t immune to Valentine’s fervor, either. Don’t we all remember making those little Valentine mailboxes for our desks at school and picking out the perfect kids’ Valentine’s Day cards to send to each of our classmates?

But as commercial as it seems these days, Valentine’s Day has a long and storied history that doesn’t revolve around the card companies’ bottom line. The history of Valentine’s Day actually finds its roots in ancient Rome and Victorian England, and it’s not as rosy as you might want to believe.

St. Valentine actually refers to several people

We don’t really know which St. Valentine the holiday technically celebrates, according to The Catholic church has records of at least three different martyrs named Valentine or Valentinus. One of them, a priest in third century Rome, defied the emperor Claudius when he decided to outlaw marriage for young men. Valentine continued performing marriage ceremonies for the lovers in secret, and Claudius had him killed for it when he found out.

Another Valentine supposedly helped Christians escape from prison, and was also martyred for it. Yet another one is said to have sent the first “Valentine” letter from prison, allegedly to the jailor’s daughter. Legend has it, he signed the note, “from your Valentine,” a greeting we still use today. Whichever saint the holiday memorializes, we generally agree he was kind, heroic and most importantly, very much pro-love.

The timing offsets an ancient Pagan holiday

Much like Christmas, Easter and other Christian holidays, we may have first begun celebrating Valentine’s Day in February in an effort to draw attention from a Pagan holiday set at the same time. In this case, that’s Lupercalia, a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, as well as Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome. During the festival, Roman priests visited the cave where Romululs and Remus were said to have been raised by a she-wolf, and sacrifice a goat for fertility and a dog for purification, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. They then dipped the hide in the blood and went around town smacking women and crop fields with it, to encourage fertility in the new year.

Women also placed strips of paper with their names in a giant urn, as part of the celebration. Eligible bachelors drew names out of the urn, and those they chose would become their partner for the year. Many of those matches ended up married. At the end of the fifth century, the pope declared the holiday un-Christian, and replaced it with St. Valentine’s Day instead.

Romance became part of it later

Like many Christian feast days, Valentine’s didn’t become associated with secular practices until later. In the Middle Ages, people thought the feast day also symbolized the beginning of birds’ mating season and so they began to associate it with becoming, as Bambi so charmingly calls it, “twitterpated.” English poet Geoffrey Chaucer recorded the day as a romantic celebration for the first time in his 1375 poem “Parliament of Foules.” According to Poetry in Translation, he wrote, “For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day / Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.”

And from the very beginning, people took issue with how Valentine’s Day was celebrated. “People love the idea that there were these wonderful eras before our own time when people celebrated Valentine’s Day in the most authentic way,” Elizabeth Nelson, a 19th-century pop culture expert who wrote the book on marketing the holiday told the University of Nevada. “But there was always this long and complicated history about Valentine’s Day and people actually thought that it was too commercial and insincere from the very beginning.”

Cards became more common in the 18th century

While people did share Valentine’s Day greetings with one another as early as the Middle Ages, written notes weren’t as popular, probably because the literacy rate wasn’t high, either. The oldest known valentine that still exists today was a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt. People who need some throwback love letter advice can still view it at the British Library in London.

Exchanging cards between lovers, family members and friends didn’t become widely popular until the 18th century. In the 1900s, improvements in printing technology made exchanging cards even easier (albeit a little less personal), with the advent of pre-printed cards. Postage got more affordable around that time too, which also contributed. At that time, Nelson says, cards were often a little off-color, frequently including sexual innuendo that might even make grandma blush today.

They started looking familiar in the 19th century

Today, Valentine’s Day is celebrated in Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, France, Australia and the United States, although it’s most common in the U.K. and the U.S. Americans likely began exchanging handmade cards in the early 1700s, but a woman named Esther A. Howland really changed the game in 1840 when she began selling the first mass-produced cards in the country. Known as the “Mother of the Valentine,” she created elaborate pieces of art that had real lace, ribbons and colorful pictures known as “scrap.”

We’ve got Howland to thank for the explosion of cards’ popularity, ever since. Today, according to the Greeting Card Association, we send an estimated 145 million Valentine’s Day cards are each year, not counting the ones kids pass out in their classrooms. Women purchase approximately 85 percent of all valentines. So when you lick your stamps this year, know you’re participating in an age-old tradition – and not just a commercial one.

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