The Dark and Muddled History of Valentine’s Day

Valentines Day History

Yet another Valentine’s Day is almost upon us, people, and you know what that means: commerce!

Yes, the celebration of Valentine’s Day is a true economic engine, leading to an estimated 20 billion dollars in annual expenditure, of which around four billion are spent on jewelry alone. That expense is partially explained by the fact that as many as six million couples may get engaged on an average Valentine’s Day, e.g. a large purchase of diamond rings. More cards are exchanged on (or near) Valentine’s Day than during any other holiday save for Christmas. Candy and flower sales also go through the roof, with nearly sixty million pounds of chocolate sold during the Valentine’s week. The purchase of grapefruits also nearly quadruples during the Valentine’s Day celebration, except that it doesn’t, I was just testing whether or not you were paying attention.

Related: Valentine’s Day Lingerie Gift Guide

Why all the pomp and circumstance around Valentine’s Day? In short, people like an excuse to splurge and celebrate and act romantic; the historical roots of Valentine’s Day are certainly no great love story, as it turns out. Join me now (actually, stay with me would be more accurate) as we discuss the true history of Valentine’s Day.

Who Was St. Valentine?

St Valentin

Well, we don’t know. Not exactly. And we’re not likely to figure out the details, either.

Most likely, an individual named something approximating “Valentine” lived in Ancient Rome in the 3rd century CE, but even as early as 496, Pope Gelasius I referred to the saint as a revered man, but one “whose acts are known only to God.” Or, in other words: “Hey, we Christians like this guy, but we’re not sure why. Oh well, venerate away, boys!” In fact a bit more is “known” about St. Valentine, though the tale may be apocryphal.

An early adherent to Christianity, Valentine went around marrying young Christian couples in defiance of a Roman order that limited marriage among young men. The Romans thought young men made better soldiers when unmarried; the Christians thought marriage was a blessed sacrament. Thus Valentine defied the ban and wed couples on the Q.T. anyway. When confronted with his transgressions against the empire and brought before Emperor Claudius II, Valentine refused to recant his beliefs and was, or so we hear, beaten, stoned, and then had his head cut off. Christian believer or not, you really have to call that a dick move by the Romans, unless you subscribe to the cultural relativism approach, in which case it’s no biggie.

Why Do We Celebrate Valentine’s Day on February 14th?

Good question, Chet! Once again it goes back the Romans.

Much like the early Christian church chose December 25th for Christmas Day in an effort to co-opt an existing Roman holiday, so too did the church choose mid-February for St. Valentine’s Day to take some of the wind out the sails of a Roman holiday, the raucous and probably totally awesome feast known as Lupercalia. During Lupercalia, Roman men would sacrifice a goat and a dog (OK, that part isn’t awesome), and then whip women with strips of hide cut from said animals in a bid to increase their fertility (wait, that part is also less-than-cool), and then a drunken orgy would commence (ah, there are the Romans we know) which would occasionally lead to long-term coupling, and always resulted in plenty of short-term sex. Christians being Christians, the Church said “Na-ah” to that kind of thing and placed Valentine’s Day on the calendar in lieu of the sacrifice-beat-drink-sexytime festival of Ancient Rome.

Related: The Lady Approved V-Day Gift Guide for Her

But Why Is Valentine’s Day Associated with Romance and Love?

William Shakespeare

Sweet Jesus, that’s another great question! While the primary reason for St. Valentine’s martyrdom — the marrying of young Christian couples against Roman decree — serves as the foundation for the romantic overtones of the holiday, the actual association between the day and romance did not commence until the latter half of the 14th century. That’s when an Geoffrey Chaucer (you know, The Canterbury Tales guy) penned this line on the occasion of a celebrated royal engagement:

“For this was on seynt Volantynys day,
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.”

For those of you not up-to-speed on your Middle English, that “translates” to:

“For this was on St. Valentine’s Day,
When every bride cometh there to choose his mate.”

The poem identified the period around Valentine’s Day as the period during which birds commenced their mating season; while that was likely weeks or even months off from a biologically-accurate assertion, the sentiment stuck: birds mating, people getting married…Valentine’s Day is romantic!

A couple centuries later, William Shakespeare also referenced the romantic overtone’s of Valentine’s Day in his play Hamlet. The notable lines, sang by sad Ophelia, read as such:

“To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.”

By the mid-19th century, the association of Valentine’s Day and romance, gifts, betrothal, and all the other lovey stuff had been firmly established. The rising prevalence of cards exchanged by hand and by mail began in earnest during those years, and a few short decades later, we have the Valentine’s Day we know, but maybe not necessarily love.