Valentine’s Day is one of the biggest days for romance — and for the sale of chocolates, roses and jewelry — but do you know where the holiday actually came from? The history of the country’s biggest Hallmark Holiday is actually a lot darker than most people realize. So, ready for your breakdown of the very unromantic history of Valentine’s Day?


The Beginnings of Valentine’s Day

How did Valentine’s Day start?

It all goes back to the ancient Romans and the celebration of Lupercalia. The holiday started off as a festival that was celebrated for two to three days, starting on February 13th and ending around the 15th of them month. Lupercalia was a ritual to celebrate and promote fertility.

To perform the ritual, both a goat and a dog would be sacrificed. The goat represented fertility and the dog represented purification. That’s when it starts to get weird.

The sacrificial animals would be skinned and their hides cut into strips.  These strips would be dipped into sacred blood (likely from the animals that were sacrificed). Then, the Roman men would shed their clothing and run around the town naked, whipping women with the blood soaked pieces of animal hide. They believed that this would make the women more fertile, and able to give them more children.

The history of Valentine’s Day may have also lead to the creation of Tinder (Not really). At the end of the festival, unmarried women would put their name in an urn to be chosen at random by an unmarried man. These one night stands (or festival stands) could end as soon as the festival was over, or could even continue if the two matched individuals chose to marry.


No More Wedding Bells

Eventually, Emperor Claudius II got tired of young men celebrating Lupercalia and starting families instead of joining his army. No one wanted to join up to help the Roman emperor conquer the world — so Claudius II retaliated by outlawing marriage! If you were young enough to join the Emperor’s legion, you weren’t allowed to get married by law.

A Roman priest by the name of Valentine decided that the Emperor had no right to ban marriages, so he continued to perform the marriage ceremonies in defiance of Claudius II’s orders. Eventually, he was arrested and imprisoned.

On February 14th, around 278 A.D. Valentine was put to death for daring to officiate wedding ceremonies for young men who should be off fighting for their emperor. He was beaten and then finally beheaded for his crimes. Eventually, he was canonized by the Catholic Church and given sainthood for giving his life to wed young men and women in the sight of God.

And now we celebrate the anniversary of his brutal execution with overpriced chocolates and wilted roses!


Combining Holidays

After St. Valentine’s death, the practice of Lupercalia was outlawed by the Roman Emperor. Instead of banning the practice entirely, the pope at the time decided to combine the anniversary of St. Valentine’s death with the festival of Lupercalia, making them into a single holiday — while quietly getting rid of the whole ‘sacrificing animals for fertility’ thing.

A few hundred years later, Valentine’s Day started becoming the holiday we know and love (or loathe) today. Geoffrey Chaucer, author of the Canterbury Tales, wrote a poem that equated St. Valentine’s Day with the time of year when birds mate. Somehow, in the mind of 12th century poets, that means love and the romantic ideal of Valentine’s Day was born.

It was mentioned in some of Shakespeare’s work as well, though Valentine’s Day cards didn’t become a thing until around 1913.

If you want to skip an expensive Hallmark holiday, just tell your date that you protest the celebration of the brutal murder of a Catholic saint. You might end up sleeping on the couch, but at least you’re standing by your principles. The history of Valentine’s Day is a lot darker than most of us realized but it’s easy to see how something that started out with the sacrifice of animals in order to have more babies has morphed over the years into the holiday that torments us every February 14th.

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Hi, I'm Kate Harveston. I'm originally from Williamsport, PA. After pursuing my degree in Professional Writing, it seemed only natural to get out there and start blogging! I am currently pursuing a career as a journalist and freelance writer, covering everything from human rights and gender equality, to US government and international politics. My life goal is to be one of the best female political writers online, while having some fun along the way (because politics can be fun!).

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