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Unpacking the Fascinating History of Valentine’s Day

We often associate Valentine’s Day with dates, life-sized teddy bears, and passionate love-making— at least, for couples. For those who are single on Valentine’s Day, this is also the perfect occasion to express your love to your family, peers, and friends. Or even bond with them because you know there is more to love than romance, like platonic or familial love.

Some of us love Valentine’s Day, but are you aware of its disturbing origins? That’s right, you’ll see more torture and beheadings than fluffy romance when you’re learning about this occasion. Be sure to scare your date or your loved ones with the spine-tingling (but fascinating) history of Valentine’s day.

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Who Was St. Valentine?

Saint Valentine Illustration
Taylor Frint/The Manual

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

An early adherent to Christianity, Valentine went around marrying young Christian couples in defiance of a Roman order that limited marriage. The Romans thought young men made better soldiers when unmarried; the early Christians thought marriage was a blessed sacrament. Thus, Valentine defied the ban and wed couples on the D.T. 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 decapitated.

Why February 14?

roman orgy lupercalia

Once again, it goes back to the Romans. Much in the way the early Christian church chose December 25 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 different tradition: The raucous and probably totally awesome feast known as Lupercalia.

During Lupercalia, Roman men would sacrifice a goat and a dog, and then whip women with strips of hide cut from said animals in a bid to increase their fertility. Afterwards, 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 disapproved Lupercalia, with Pope Gelasius announcing that St. Valentine’s Day would replace it on February 14.

Why is V-Day Associated with Romance and Love?

william shakespeare

Hey, that’s a good 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 the romance did not commence until the latter half of the 14th century. That’s when one Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of The Canterbury Tales, 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.”

The Middle English text translates to: “For this was on St. Valentine’s Day; When every bird 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 of centuries later, William Shakespeare also referenced the romantic overtones of Valentine’s Day in his play Hamlet. The notable lines, sang by a saddened 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.

How Do People Celebrate Valentine’s Day Now?

valentines day romantic ring rose

Valentine’s Day is undeniably an economic engine, as people are eager to spend their hard-earned cash on gifts and dates. In 2020 alone, the National Retail Federation (NRF) reported that the total spending for Valentine’s Day would reach $27.4 billion, up from 2019’s $20.7 billion. Hence, we may expect the figures to skyrocket in 2022, with candy and flower sales soaring through the roof during the occasion.

Although exchanging cards or going on dates are the usual Valentine’s Day traditions for most people, we also need to learn how different countries celebrate this special day. In Japan and South Korean, for example, women give chocolates and flowers to men on February 14. A month later, on White Day, it will be the men who will lavish the women of their life with chocolates and gifts. Meanwhile, South African women attach the name of their special someone on their sleeves, and sometimes, this is how men find out the true identities of their admirers.

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