The Origins of Valentine's Day

Valentine's Day

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the truth behind the legenD

If you thought the story of St Valentine’s Day would be sugar and spice and all things nice… Think again. It’s more a tale of sex 'n blood 'n heads will roll!

Lupercalia picture of woman and men with sacrificial animals

the origins of st valentine

The story of Valentine’s Day begins with a pagan celebration called Lupercalia. This Roman feast of debauchery took place for centuries in the middle of February. An order of priests ran naked through the streets "gently slapping" women with the blood-soaked hides of sacrificed animals, which they believed promoted fertility. (Best not try this at home – especially with vegans…) 

Following the mild flagellation, the men selected women's names at random from a jar to decide who would remain together for the next year or, if they fell in love, they'd marry. 'Love Island', eat your heart out!

How Secular Fun Got Serious

The feast of Lupercalia was very popular, and one of the few pagan holidays still celebrated 150 years after Christianity came to the Roman Empire.

However in the 5th century, when Pope Gelasius I came to power, he tried to put an end to all this godless fun. But people still wanted to do some carousing around 14 February, and so the Pope needed a respectable excuse…

the tale of 2 valentines

This is the point where not one, but two Valentines enter the story. Both Valentines were Christian martyrs, put to death by Emperor Claudius II in the 3rd century. Both performed miracles and healed the sick, but this came to the attention of the Roman authorities who demanded they renounce their faith. And of course they refused.

Crucially for the legend, the two men were both put to death on 14 February, albeit years apart. So the Pope could declare the day to be a feast of celebration for the martyred “Saint Valentine”. Everyone was happy!

How did secret Valentine's cards begin?

Worried that the two Valentines themselves have zero connection with matters of the heart? Well, it’s said that one of them, Saint Valentine of Terni, had been secretly officiating weddings for Roman soldiers against the emperor's wishes. While the other had been tutoring a young girl: he fell in love and, just before his death, he wrote her a letter signed “From your Valentine. The phrase we commonly use today.

how love and valentines became one

Later, from the 14th century, poets such as Geoffrey Chaucer reinforced the link between love and St Valentine in several works. William Shakespeare continued to popularise the connection by coupling romance with Spring or, more appropriately, the start of birds’ mating season in mid-February.

The First Valentine's Card

The first Valentine's Day card dates to 1415 when the Duke of Orléans sent a card to his wife while he was a prisoner in the Tower of London. (Must have bought it online.) 

It took several more centuries before letter writing to inamorata became permanently attached to 14 February. But by the early 1910s, an American company that would become Hallmark had begun distributing official "Valentine's Day” cards, and we’ve never looked back.

However you choose to celebrate Valentine’s Day, humans have shown a strong desire to escape from wintry mid-February to look for love - from the Romans to the present day. Mutual whipping with sacrificial hides isn’t for everyone, but we all enjoy treating (and being treated by) those we love.

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