Valentine’s Day is a big deal for people all around the world. Nowadays, celebrations consist of romantic (or platonic) displays of affection of varying magnitude. However, this was not always the case. From pagan rituals to elementary school parties, Valentine’s Day has undergone a vast shift in tone over the past few millennia. As we prepare for this year’s festivities, let us look back at the strange and mysterious history of the holiday.
The Catholic Church recognizes three different saints by the name of Valentine or Valentinus. It is debated which of these men is the true namesake of the holiday. One legend states that St. Valentine was a Roman priest during the third century C.E. At the time, Emperor Claudius II had outlawed marriage for young men because of his belief that single men made better soldiers. St. Valentine would allegedly perform secret weddings for young couples, and was executed after being discovered.
Another story states that St. Valentine was executed for attempting to help Christians escape from Roman prisons. It is said that when Valentine himself was imprisoned, he fell in love with the jailer’s daughter, and wrote her a letter signed “From your Valentine.” Legend says that this note became the basis for the modern Valentine greeting. Valentine’s Day is believed to have been created in honor of the death of St. Valentine.
The origins of Valentine’s Day can also, strangely enough, be traced back to the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia, which took place from Feb. 13 to 15 every year. An order of priests known as the Luperci would gather at a cave believed to be where the mythological twin brothers Romulus and Remus were nurtured by a she-wolf. There, the Luperci would sacrifice both goats and dogs in honor of the brothers, as well as Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture. The priests would skin the animals and dip the hides in their blood. Then they would take to the streets, where they would proceed to whip any women they passed with the hides. The Roman women welcomed the act, and would go so far as to line up for the priests to hit them. It was believed that the ritual would make them more fertile.
The festival would conclude with a lottery in which young men would draw the names of women from a jar. Some historians say the couples would get together for the duration of the festival, while others claim the pairing would last the entire year. It was common for these couples to get married if they hit it off. In the fifth century C.E., Pope Gelasius I outlawed Lupercalia, officially deeming Feb. 14 St. Valentine’s Day in order to Christianize the holiday. But by then, Lupercalia was more of a symbolic celebration than it was previously.
Valentine’s Day became popular in Europe during the middle ages. It was featured and romanticized by the work of English writers Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare. The French and English also believed Feb. 14 to be the beginning of birds’ mating season, which added to the perception of Valentine’s Day as a romantic celebration. It was popular during this time for people to exchange gifts on Valentine’s Day. Hand-written valentines began to emerge around 1400. Mass-printed Valentine’s Day cards replaced hand-written notes at the turn of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century.
In 1907, three brothers by the names of Joyce Clyde, William and Rollie Hall started the Norfolk Postcard Company out of Norfolk, NE. The brothers began mass producing valentines in 1913. Years later, the company would be known as Hallmark Cards, Inc.