36ºF

The dark and mysterious origins of Valentine’s Day

How did Valentine’s Day become so lovey?

Roses.
Roses. (WDIV)

Valentine’s Day -- the holiday made for a Hallmark movie. At least that’s what it seems like now. But it wasn’t always so closely associated with roses and teddy bears.

The origins of the holiday are a bit darker than the hearts and chocolates that mark the day now. Although, tracing the exact origin of the holiday is a bit murky.

(Get stories like this one in your inbox! Sign up for the Morning Report Newsletter here)

Here’s a look at how we got here:

St. Valentine

Starting with the holiday’s namesake, St. Valentine’s story is a bit of a mystery.

So, the Catholic Church had at least three different saints named either Valentine or Valentinus, all martyred. Some say Valentine was a priest during the third century of Rome.

As the legend goes, according to History, Emperor Claudius II decided that single men were better soldiers than those with wives and families. So, he outlawed marriage for young men.

Valentine felt this was an injustice, so he defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages in secret. When Claudius found out, he ordered Valentine be put to death.

St Valentine baptizing St Lucilla, Jacopo Bassano.
St Valentine baptizing St Lucilla, Jacopo Bassano. (Jacopo da Ponte/Wikipedia Commons)

Another theory is that it was Saint Valentine of Terni, a bishop, who was the true inspiration behind the holiday. (He was also beheaded by Claudius II).

Isn’t this just so romantic!?

Pagan Festival

Another darker theory behind the holiday takes us to the ancient Pagan Festival in February, called Lupercalia, celebrated possibly pre-Roman, from Feb. 13 to Feb 15.

The men, an NPR profile reports, sacrificed a goat and a dog, and then whipped women with the hides of the animals they had just slain. Young women would apparently line up for this, because they believed it would make them fertile.

The Lupercalian Festival in Rome (ca. 1578–1610), drawing by the circle of Adam Elsheimer, showing the Luperci dressed as dogs and goats, with Cupid and personifications of fertility.
The Lupercalian Festival in Rome (ca. 1578–1610), drawing by the circle of Adam Elsheimer, showing the Luperci dressed as dogs and goats, with Cupid and personifications of fertility. (Wikipedia Commons)

It also included a “matchmaking lottery,” where young men drew names of women from a jar, and would be coupled up for the festival -- or beyond. It often ended in marriages.

Lupercalia is mentioned in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” when Mark Antony is told by Caesar to whip his wife, in the hope that she will become fertile.

The festival was eventually outlawed at the end of the 5th century, when Pope Gelasius I deemed it “un-Christian,” and declared Feb. 14 as St. Valentine’s Day. But it wasn’t associated with love until much later.

Where is the love?

The first mention of Valentine’s Day being associated with love is a mention in the 1375 poem “Parliament of Foules," by Geoffrey Chaucer:

“For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day / Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.”

In England, Chaucer noted, birds coupled off to mate in February, and soon, the Europeans began sending love notes during bird-mating season. Though, Chaucer’s mention of Valentine’s Day in this poem is also disputed. Some think he was referring to the fest day of St. Valentine of Genoa.

The oldest known Valentine (yes, like the ones you used to pass out in class in the fourth grade) dates back to the 1400s. Slowly, but surely, Valentine’s Day started getting sweeter.

An English Victorian era Valentine card located in the Museum of London.
An English Victorian era Valentine card located in the Museum of London. (Wikipedia Commons)

Shakespeare romanticized Valentine’s Day in his work and it began to really take off in Britain and in Europe. Eventually, it made it over to the New World.

And then boom - Hallmark hit the map in 1913, and started mass producing Valentine’s Day cards. The rest, as they say, is history.

What about Cupid?

Cupid, the winged baby of love that we think of, was known to the Greeks as Eros, the god of love. He wasn’t as adorable.

There are conflicting accounts of Cupid’s lineage. Some describe him as the son of Nyx and Erebus or Aphrodite and Ares -- or even Aphrodite and Zeus, who would have been both his father and grandfather.

In Greek mythology, Cupid played with emotions and was irresistible to both man and gods. But later on, Cupid would be depicted as a playful, mischievous child -- the one we picture today.


About the Author: