The History Behind Valentine’s Day

Everyone knows Valentine’s Day, the holiday of romance, candy, greeting cards, and Cupid. What’s less known, however, is why exactly we celebrate this holiday and how it got its start. Interestingly, while Valentine’s Day has almost always centered around love, the origins of this day are a little dark and certainly not up to the standards of what we consider romantic today. Read on to learn the history of St. Valentine’s Day.

A Tale of Two Saint Valentines

As you might guess from the holiday’s full name–Saint Valentine’s Day–it does indeed have something to do with a person… or rather, persons. In fact, the “Valentine” in St. Valentine’s Day refers to multiple people. Valentine was a common name for Christian martyrs of old, and while Valentine’s Day was instilled to celebrate a man who lived during the third century, we’re still not exactly sure which specific man the day refers to. Historians and theologians have narrowed it down to two or three possible suspects, so when we celebrate the holiday, we’re actually celebrating both Valentine of Rome and Valentine of Terni.

Inspired by a Roman Festival?

Since so much is still to be learned about Valentine’s Day’s namesake, the holiday’s origins are still up for debate. One of the common theories surrounding Valentine’s Day traditions is that they come from the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia, which took place from February 13 to 15. During the festival, attendees would sacrifice animals and then draw names from a jar to make couples for the duration of the celebration. Not quite our modern idea of romance, is it?

Poetry and St. Valentine’s Day

The love poem is a common Valentine’s Day tradition, but don’t think that it’s limited to “roses are red, violets are blue.” Actually, poetry has a long history with Valentine’s Day, and we can date the relationship all the way back to the days of Geoffrey Chaucer, a well-regarded poet who lived in the 14 century.  His poem, “The Parlement of Foules,” tells of birds mating on St. Valentine’s Day, and it’s the first explicit record of St. Valentine’s Day being a holiday for love. Years later, Shakespeare would write about St. Valentine’s Day as a holiday love, perhaps most famously in his famous play, “Hamlet.” The next time you see a cheesy Valentine’s Day poem, you’ll know that it’s probably the oldest Valentine’s tradition!

Modern Valentine’s Day

During the 19th and 20th centuries, Valentine’s Day underwent a transformation very similar to other familiar holidays like Halloween and Christmas. That is, it was mass-market commercialized. Believe it or not, the first pre-written Valentine’s Day greeting cards existed as early as the 1800s, available for sale to those who weren’t creative enough to come up with their own poems. As postal services improved, the act of mailing Valentine’s Day cards became more and more commonplace. However, the tradition of buying loved ones chocolates and other gifts became popular only within the past 50 years.

It’s interesting to see how Valentine’s Day has evolved from a religious observance to the (sometime expensive) lovey-dovey holiday as we know it today. Despite its twisty, turny history, it’s become a holiday that’s celebrated around the world. And now you know we don’t have just one person to thank, but rather some old religious figures, a few poets, and of course, the greeting card companies.

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