The History of Valentine's Day—Plus, Why We Celebrate It Today
How did modern day love become affiliated with hearts, cards, birds, and the winged Cupid?
With the smell of roses wafting through the air, it's a wonder that the world didn't always view Valentine's Day the same way many years ago. In fact, it started out almost the opposite. Trace back far enough and the holiday's origins begin with ancient Rome. What we know as one single day to celebrate our loved ones, the Romans would celebrate in three during the festival of Lupercalia, which started on February 13 and lasted through February 15. This wasn't your typical feast: there were sacrificial offerings and violent rampages—a departure from romance that may sound a bit vile (and it was); however, that didn't stop women from joining in as they held the belief that it would make them fertile in the coming year. A communal lottery matched up the men and women for the three-day event. And, if the match was right, some couples would stay together after the festival was over.
In the third century, Christian martyrdom took hold of the narrative: differing legends celebrate three different saints named Valentine. One story—and the most popular—claims that Saint Valentine was imprisoned by Roman Emperor Claudius II for refusing to convert to paganism. According to the tale, the priest signed a letter "from your Valentine" to his jailer's daughter, whom he had befriended and miraculously healed from blindness.
Other accounts hold that it was the bishop Saint Valentine of Terni, though it is possible the two saints were actually one person. A third story tells of a Roman priest who performed weddings for soldiers forbidden to marry under the decree of the emperor. Allegedly, he wore a ring adorned with Cupid—the symbol of love—and handed out paper hearts to remind Christians of their love of God. Because of this, he is often cited as the true namesake of the holiday. And by the fifth century, Pope Gelasius had formally declared February 14 as Saint Valentine's Day.
As time passed, the holiday took on a saccharine sentiment of love. We have great poets such as Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare to thank for their now-famous passages about matters of the heart. By the 1700s, valentines of the medieval era were popularized as handmade tokens—embellished with lace, dresdens, and ribbons—and exchanged between loved ones before they were started to be mass-manufactured in the mid-1800s. And for the first time in 1913, Hallmark began its printing of Valentine's Day cards. Today, many of these greeting cards depict the same motifs of its origin: the winged Cupid aka the Roman god of love, birds (due to the avian mating season that's believed to be timed with the holiday), red roses, and the heart.