The Not-So-Romantic History of Valentine’s Day

history of valentines day red heart balloon
Yet another Valentine’s Day is upon us, and you know what that means: booze and commerce! And maybe sex. And probably dinner, none of it necessarily in that order.

Also, crushing loneliness for some.

Now, let’s have some fun here! Let’s discover why we celebrate Valentine’s Day in the first place. Which its kind of an intriguing story, really, especially since there’s no romantic love story involved here, but rather lawbreaking, torture, and beheading. Join me (actually, “stay with me” would be more accurate) as we discuss the true history of Valentine’s Day.

Who Was St. Valentine?


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. However, even 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, 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 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. Christian, Pagan, or whatever you are, we can all agree that is pretty uncool. If you’re going to cut a guy’s head off, can’t you just start with that and leave the stoning and beating aside?

Why February 14?

roman orgy lupercalia

Once again, it goes back the Romans.

Much like 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 (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-beating-drinking-sexy-time festival of Ancient Rome.

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 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 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 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.

How Do People Celebrate Valentine’s Day Now?

valentines day romantic ring rose

Among the many things it may or may not be for many people, Valentine’s Day is an undeniable economic engine, leading to an estimated $20 billion in annual expenditure, of which around $4 billion is spent on jewelry. That expense is partially explained by the fact that as many as 6 million couples may get engaged on Valentine’s Day, thus there’s a huge amount of cash spent on 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 60 million pounds of chocolate sold during the week of the holiday. And the purchase of canned yams nearly quadruples during Valentine’s Day, except that it doesn’t, I was just testing whether or not you were paying attention. I’m not even sure canned yams are a thing, frankly.

As for a few contemporary Valentine’s Day traditions from around the world, in South Korean, women do the gift-giving on February 14 and men give gifts in return one month later on March 14. Also, apparently it’s a thing for singles to eat bean paste noodles on April 14, but who’s really enforcing that?

In the Philippines, hundreds of couple come together to get married at massive services on Valentine’s Day. This practice arguably takes some of the meaning out of the whole “special day” thing, but is also surely cheaper than a standard wedding.

And in Ghana, February 14 has been branded National Chocolate Day in an attempt to lure tourists to this cocoa-producing nation. Which is working out alright, largely thanks to the fact that Ghana is relatively safe and stable when compared to many other West African nations. In fact, tourism was the fourth largest sector of Ghana’s economy last year, after gold, cocoa, and oil.

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