The History of Valentine’s Day | How It Became a Celebration of Love

History of valentines day

Every year on February 14, because that’s how calendars and holidays work, Valentine’s Day is celebrated. In the United States and other parts of the globe, people exchange chocolates, flowers, and presents with their significant others in honor of St. Valentine.

But who is this mysterious St. Valentine, and why is there a holiday named after him? We want to know who this fella is and why this enigmatic saint was immortalized with a whole holiday and find out the origins of these customs.

But we have to go back—way back—to explore the origins and significance of Valentine’s Day, which can be traced from the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia, which heralded the arrival of spring, to the tradition of exchanging cards in Victorian England.

What exactly is the history of Valentine’s Day? How did it become a celebration of all things love? Cupid, we are coming for your backstory!

heart of flowers

The Valentine Saints

The story behind this holiday and its patron saint is cloaked in mystery! While it is known that February has traditionally been a month for celebrating love and that the modern St. Valentine’s Day intertwines elements of both Christian and ancient Roman traditions, the question remains: who was Saint Valentine, and how did his name become linked with this age-old ritual?

The Catholic Church acknowledges at least three saints named Valentine or Valentinus, each a martyr. According to one story, Valentine was a priest in third-century Rome. Emperor Claudius II, believing that unmarried men were superior soldiers compared to those with wives and families, banned marriage for young men.

Valentine, seeing the unfairness of this edict, secretly continued to marry young couples in defiance of Claudius. When his deeds were uncovered, Claudius ordered his execution (ok, this took a really dark turn). However, some claim that the holiday’s real namesake was Saint Valentine of Terni, a bishop, who was also executed by Claudius II outside Rome.

Other narratives posit that Valentine’s martyrdom was due to his efforts to assist Christians in escaping the brutal Roman prisons, where they suffered beatings and torture. According to a particular legend, Valentine, while imprisoned, sent the first “valentine” greeting. He reportedly fell in love with a young girl, perhaps the daughter of his jailer. It is believed that he penned a letter to her before his death, signing it as “From your Valentine,” a phrase that can be seen on Valentine’s cards to this day. Sweet but scary!

While the actual details of the Valentine legends are unclear, they all highlight his character as compassionate, heroic, and, notably, a figure of romance. By the Middle Ages, possibly due to this esteemed rep, Valentine had become one of the most celebrated saints in both France and England.

holding hands

The Beginnings of Valentine’s Day: Tracing its Roots to a February Pagan Celebration

While some theorize that Valentine’s Day is observed in mid-February to honor the memory of Valentine’s death or burial, which likely happened around A.D. 270, others suggest that the Christian church may have set St. Valentine’s feast day at this time to adopt and reshape the pagan festival of Lupercalia. Lupercalia, a fertility celebration dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, and to the legendary founders of Rome, Romulus, and Remus, was observed on February 15.

The festivities began with the Luperci, a group of Roman priests, convening at a holy cave where Romulus and Remus, Rome’s founders, were said to have been nurtured by a she-wolf or “lupa.” The priests would sacrifice a goat for fertility and a dog (WHAT? Noooooo) for purification. Afterward, they would cut the goat’s hide into strips, soak them in the sacrificial blood, and roam the city streets, lightly hitting women and crop fields with the hide strips.

Roman women welcomed this ritual, believing it increased their fertility for the year. Later, as per tradition, young women in the city would put their names in a large urn. The city’s single men would each pick a name and be coupled with the woman they chose for the year, often leading to marriage.

Y’all? Valentine’s Day is messed up, and we are sorry to hit you with this history.

holding flowers

Significance of Valentine’s Day: Celebrating Romance and Affection

Lupercalia persisted even as Christianity gained ground but was eventually prohibited towards the end of the 5th century for being “un-Christian.” This led to Pope Gelasius designating Feb. 14 as St. Valentine’s Day. However, it was only much later that the day was firmly linked with love.

In France and England during the Middle Ages, it was widely held that February 14 marked the start of the birds’ mating season, enhancing the notion that Valentine’s Day should be a time for romantic expressions. Geoffrey Chaucer, an English poet, was the first to document St. Valentine’s Day as a romantic occasion in his 1375 poem “Parliament of Foules,” with the line, “For this was on Seynt Valentyne’s day / Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.”

Exchanging Valentine’s greetings was popular from the Middle Ages, but written Valentines began to emerge after 1400. The earliest known Valentine that still exists today is a poem from 1415, written by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife during his imprisonment in the Tower of London after the Battle of Agincourt. This poem is now a part of the British Library’s manuscript collection in London, England. In subsequent years, King Henry V is said to have commissioned a writer, John Lydgate, to pen a Valentine’s note to Catherine of Valois.


How Does Cupid Fit In?

On Valentine’s Day cards, Cupid is commonly depicted as a cherubic figure, naked as a jaybird, playfully wielding arrows that inspire love in unsuspecting singles. This portrayal originates from the Roman deity Cupid, who is derived from the Greek god of love, Eros.

There are varying accounts of his parentage; some narratives claim he is the offspring of Nyx and Erebus, while others suggest Aphrodite and Ares, or alternatively Iris and Zephyrus, and even Aphrodite and Zeus (the latter making Zeus both his father and grandfather).

Greek Archaic poets describe Eros as a stunning immortal who toyed with the feelings of both gods and mortals, using arrows tipped in gold to provoke love and others in lead to create distaste. It was only in the Hellenistic period that Eros began to be depicted as the playful, plump child he is recognized as in modern Valentine’s Day imagery.

valentines day card

Valentine’s Day Celebrations and Gifts

Valentine’s Day is celebrated not only in the United States but also in Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, France, and Australia. In Great Britain, the observance of Valentine’s Day started gaining popularity around the 17th century.

By the mid-point of the 18th century, it was customary for friends and lovers across all social strata to exchange modest gifts or handwritten notes. By 1900, printed cards had begun to supplant handwritten letters, facilitated by advancements in printing technology. These ready-made cards provided a convenient means for individuals to express their feelings in an era when direct expression was often restrained. Additionally, reduced postage costs helped boost the popularity of sending Valentine’s Day cards.

In America, the tradition of exchanging handmade valentines likely dates back to the early 1700s. During the 1840s, Esther A. Howland started selling the first commercially produced valentines in the U.S. Known as the “Mother of the Valentine,” Howland crafted elaborate designs featuring real lace, ribbons, and vibrant images called “scrap.” Presently, as per Hallmark, around 145 million Valentine’s Day cards are sent annually, making it the year’s second most popular card-sending holiday after Christmas.


And that brings it to the present, although we’ll never look at this holiday the same way after learning the dark history behind it!

Today, Valentine’s Day has transformed into a pretty major commercial event, a change that has left a lot of people feeling rather disillusioned with the celebration. Nonetheless, the day is observed in various ways. Some people splurge on expensive gifts like jewelry and flowers for their romantic partners; others mark the occasion as Singles Awareness Day (SAD), maybe taking themselves out for a lovely solo dinner and self-gifting chocolates; and the younger generations are much more comfortable accepting and celebrating their singlehood in a society that frequently puts a ton of pressure on the importance of romantic partnerships.

Molly Davis
Molly Davis

Molly is an East Coast writer who lives on West Coast time. She’s been in the journalism field for over 20 years — newspapers are her first love but she’s finding digital media to be just as fun and challenging as print! When she’s not giving therapist-quality dating advice, she’s curled up watching movies, reading, or volunteering at local dog shelters.