A history of Valentine’s Day

(Jacopo Bassano/Wikimedia Creative Commons)

Ah, Valentine’s Day. A day for love, intimacy, marketing, cards, candy and flower sales…

Yeah, V-Day is as commercialized as they come, joining the proud ranks of Christmas, Mother’s Day, Easter and Halloween in holidays whose meaning has long become superseded by capitalism. Thanks, America!

Even if you’re single, Feb. 14 has become awfully pervasive. In your tender school years, you’re obligated to buy a bunch of those little cardboard Valentines (candy is optionally mandatory) to put in your classmate’s boxes. Where did we go so far off the mark? It used to be a holiday for couples. Where did it even come from?

Most people know the basic story. St. Valentine, at some unspecified point in history, ministered to the weddings of soldiers, who were forbidden to marry. Valentine was persecuted for breaking the law, and martyred in the name of love. Since Feb. 14 is his death day, that’s when people celebrate his sacrifice through displays of affection and loyalty.

Except not really.

Not much is known about St. Valentinus, except that he’s Roman (as you can probably tell the from the name) and he was a priest around the time of Emperor Claudius II (around ADE 270, for those of you who didn’t take AP Latin). There are multiple legends associated with our pal Val, one of which included him healing the blind daughter of the judge who sentenced him to death; supposedly, he signed his death warrant “Your Valentine” as a facetious lark.

While the marriage story is most relevant, it probably never happened. Though Emperor Claudius II was a bit of a hardass (he murdered his predecessor for the throne and was an alleged Christian-hater), the ruler never barred his soldiers from marrying, so that’s out the window.

Where did the ‘luuuuuuurve’ part come in, then?

The answer, of course, is the same reason we have for practically every holiday in western civilization: the Christians stole it. Valentine’s Day is more or less a rebranded version of the Roman fertility festival Lupercalia.

Held from Feb. 13-15, Lupercalia was a religious Roman holiday (which, if you’ve read my previous columns, you’ll know usually involves Roman debauchery) centered on fertility. Each year, a set of priests called ‘Luperculi’ (roughly, ‘of the wolf,’ which is a possible reference to the wolf who nursed Rome’s founders, Romulus and Remus) would sacrifice a goat, skin it and hand the hide off to two young, virile men.

The men would then fashion a set of whips from the hide and run through the streets, striking at young women (who often lined up for this occasion). Those struck were said to be fertile for the year to come. As you can see, people (men in particular) were reluctant to give up this tradition, so when Christianity became more prevalent, they just carried it over and slapped Valentine’s name on it.

Over time, the holiday evolved to be less about fertility and more about courtships and romance, particularly in medieval times, with displays of chivalry being a common route to marriage. Poetry and written sentiments were popular in royal courts.

Love poetry in particular and Valentine’s Day have been linked for centuries. In the late 1700s, when a printer came upon the idea of selling pre-written poems to the literarily uninclined, the concept of cards took off. With the growth of postage in the 1840s, mailing cards became in vogue, and by the end of the 19th century, the holiday had transferred to the hands of manufacturers and salesmen.

While some Catholic and Anglican churches hold Valentine’s Day services, the holiday has  become mostly commercialized. More and more people, however, in the name of both sustainability and genuity, are now turning back to writing their own poems, hand-making gifts and simply spending time with their beloved, instead of turning to mass-printed cards and candy. I hope that that’s the case for you – whips optional.

Happy Valentine’s Day!  


Marlese Lessing is the news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.