The history of Valentine's Day

-A A +A

From Lupercus to American Greetings

By Laura Caskey

“Valentine’s Day is a sham created by card companies to reinforce and exploit gender stereotypes,” Liz Lemon, Tina Fey’s cynical character on NBC’s sitcom “30 Rock,” tells her co-worker, Pete.

Lemon’s view on the commercialization of Valentine’s Day has become one commonly shared by those who feel the holiday is just another way greeting card companies and retailers get customers to spend money and put a monetary value on love.

But it wasn’t always like this. The roots of Valentine’s Day are steeped in both history and mystification.

A sordid past

Before the foundation of the Christian Church, the Ancient Romans celebrated a festival of love known as Lupercalia, a time to honor Lupercus, the god of fertility. Roman men would participate in traditional purification rituals to the gods and slaughter goats as sacrifice. After consuming wine, the men would run through the streets of Rome, carrying the skins of the slaughtered goats. Women flooded the streets, believing by being touched by the goat skins, their chances at fertility and easy childbirth would be improved.

So, it was very similar to how we celebrate today.

While there is no substantial evidence linking Lupercalia and the later celebration of Valentine’s, the celebration, traditionally commenced at the end of Feburary, helps connect this time of year to love.

The Catholic celebration of St. Valentine’s Day on Feb. 14 was not officially established until 496 A.D. by Pope Galasius. St. Valentine’s Day was created in memory of the martyred St. Valentine.
Historically, it is disputed who the actual St. Valentine was.

Two saints are credited with being St. Valentine – St. Valentius of Terni and a 3rd Century Roman priest, known as Bishop Valentine.

The latter is most widely-held to be the celebration’s namesake.
One of the most commonly accepted versions of the tale states Bishop Valentine was a priest in the time of Caesar Claudius and was jailed and beheaded for betraying the emperor some time between 269 and 273 A.D.

During his rule, Claudius had banned the marriage of younger citizens, believing married men made poor soldiers. As a devout Catholic, Valentine believed marriage was a part of God’s plan and purpose, and continued conducting marriages for couples as young as 12 years old.

The story goes that Valentine was put in jail, and fell in love with the jailer’s daughter. On the day of his death he sent her a note signed “From your Valentine.”

It’s hard to tell how much of this story has been transformed and embellished to fit the more modern views on the holiday, but it is still an interesting one.

It wasn’t until much later that the holiday took on the traditional symbol as one of love and gift-giving.


“For this was Saint Valentine’s day, when every bird of every kind that men can imagine comes to this place to choose his mate.”
– “The Parliament of Fowls,” Geoffrey Chaucer

Some literary historians credit Chaucer, of Canterbury Tales fame, as the first poet to equate the celebration of Valentine’s Day with love. The celebration of Valentine’s Day is mentioned both in his poems “The Parliament of Fowls” and “Complaint of Mars.” However, most of the poems truly associated with Valentine’s Day didn’t come into existence until the late 18th century. The original version of the clichéd “roses are red, violets are blue” poem first appeared in an English nursery rhyme collection, “Gammer Gurton’s Garland,” in 1784 before being overused and perverted in playgrounds everywhere.

The first Valentine’s Day cards came later, with the first commercially produced cards appearing in the mid-19th century, and though it may be hard to believe, the red, heart-shaped boxes of candy didn’t gain popularity until the mid-20th century.


In the modern era, Valentine’s Day is a time for both children and lovers in the Western world to exchange cards and sentiments.

Its draw has actually expanded to Eastern culture, with the day known in Japan and Korea as “giro-choco.” Women are obligated to give chocolate to all of their coworkers. The day is reciprocated on March 14 with “White Day,” in which men remember their female coworkers with gifts of white chocolate.

Worldwide, the holiday has its cynics who respond in rebellion with celebrations like Single Awareness Day and Black Hearts parties, celebrating being out of love.

Valentine’s Day is the second busiest day for the greeting card industry, trailing only behind Christmas.


You may be a fan or a critic.

You may celebrate Feb. 14 with pink hearts, candy and dinner or – like Liz Lemon – celebrate Anna Howard Shaw Day (to “celebrate the Feb. 14 birthday of Anna Howard Shaw, famed American suffragette.”)

No matter how you choose to celebrate, you can take comfort in the fact that you are participating in a worldwide celebration of love with deep historical roots.

Also, remember all Valentine’s candy goes on sale Feb. 15, so everybody wins.

Happy Valentine’s Day!