Like many of our holidays, Valentine’s Day has become so convoluted and commercialized that most people are completely unaware of its true origin. Although February 14 may be a time of pink hearts, red flowers and fuzzy teddy bears in our current culture, the story of its creation is far from warm and fuzzy.
Though now celebrated universally, Valentine’s Day has its roots in the brutality and excess of ancient Roman society. From Feb. 13 to 15, the Romans celebrated the feast of Lupercalia. During this time drunk men would “hit on” women, but not with cheesy pick-up lines–with the hides of dead goats and dogs. The women believed it would make them fertile. Charming, right? Read on for more startling facts about the true history of Valentine’s Day.
A Brief (and Bloody) History of Valentine‘s Day
- During the annual Roman celebration participants were often naked, and engaged in “a matchmaking lottery, in which young men drew the names of women from a jar. The couple would then be, um, coupled up for the duration of the festival – or longer, if the match was right.”
- Pope Gelasius I changed the lottery to have both young men and women draw the names of saints whom they would then emulate for the year (more pious than dead goat whippings).
- Emperor Claudius II executed two men — both named Valentine — on Feb. 14 of different years in the 3rd century A.D. Their martyrdom was honored by the Catholic Church with the celebration of St. Valentine’s Day.
- One legend has it that at least one Valentine, imprisoned by Claudius, fell in love with the daughter of his jailer. Before he was executed, he allegedly sent her a letter signed “from your Valentine,” which could be where the card-giving tradition began.
- Another legend suggests Claudius II had prohibited marriage for young men, claiming that bachelors made better soldiers. When Valentine continued to secretly perform marriage ceremonies he was apprehended by the Romans and put to death.
- While some believe that Valentine’s Day is celebrated in the middle of the month to commemorate the anniversary of Valentine’s death or burial, others claim that the Christian church may have decided to place the St. Valentine’s feast day in the middle of February in an effort to “Christianize” the pagan celebration of Lupercalia.
- It was not until the 14th century that Valentine’s Day became associated with romantic love. According to UCLA medieval scholar Henry Ansgar Kelly, it was Chaucer who first linked St. Valentine’s Day with romance in a poem honoring of the engagement between England’s Richard II and Anne of Bohemia.
- The tradition of Valentine’s cards did not become widespread in the United States, however, until the 1850s, when Esther A. Howland, a Mount Holyoke graduate and native of Worcester, Mass., began mass-producing them.
- Although the mid-February holiday celebrating love and lovers remains wildly popular, the confusion over its origins led the Catholic Church, in 1969, to drop St. Valentine’s Day from the Roman calendar of official, worldwide Catholic feasts.
Want to skip all the gross consumerism? Check out: How To Plan A Zero-Waste Valentine‘s Day
Sources: Daily Journal Online, NPR, Info Please, American Catholic