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Valentine Day History: Ancient Ritual to Romantic Celebration

by Stefan Karatzas 09 Feb 2024

What’s the true story behind Valentine’s Day? It’s not about ancient fertility rituals but a transformative journey from the martyrdom of St. Valentine to a global occasion of love. In this article, we uncover Valentine's Day history and how February 14 became synonymous with romance and affection.

Key Takeaways

  • Valentine‚Äôs Day is not derived from the pagan rituals of Lupercalia; instead, it is connected to the lives of multiple Christian martyrs named Saint Valentine, celebrated on February 14, with historical emphasis on their saintly deeds rather than romantic love.

  • The day‚Äôs association with romantic love began in the Middle Ages, influenced by writers like Geoffrey Chaucer and later by the introduction of printed materials and commercial valentines, which facilitated the expression of romantic sentiments.

  • Modern Valentine‚Äôs Day traditions encompass the exchange of cards, chocolates, and red roses, aided by commercialization that has contributed to significant consumer spending around the holiday despite some resistance to its over-commercialization.

Unraveling the True History of Valentine's Day

Saint Valentine's Day celebration

Often, people associate Valentine’s Day with the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia, celebrated in mid-February. However, this is largely a misconception. Historically, there’s no substantial link between the two. The festival of Lupercalia centered around fertility rites, not romantic love, with Luperci priests striking women with goat’s skin to promote fertility.

The real roots of Valentine’s Day can be traced back to Roman times, but they have no connection with Lupercalia. Instead, the day is connected to one or more saints named Valentine, celebrated on February 14. The history of Valentine’s Day is a fascinating blend of legend, faith, and tradition, and it’s time we delve deeper into the lives of these enigmatic saints.

The Saint Behind the Holiday: Who Was Saint Valentine?

When we talk about Saint Valentine, we‚Äôre not referring to a single person. In fact, history records over fifty saints sharing the name Valentine. Yet, two figures stand out in connection with Valentine‚Äôs Day ‚Äď Valentine of Rome and Valentine of Terni.

One Saint Valentine, a Roman priest associated with the Catholic Church, is remembered for performing secret weddings and healing a jailor’s daughter during the reign of Emperor Claudius II. His benevolent acts ultimately led to his execution. Another Saint Valentine, possibly the Bishop of Terni, shares a similar narrative of clandestine weddings and miraculous healing. Intriguingly, both these saints met their martyrdom on Saint Valentine’s Day, February 14.

Nonetheless, early descriptions of the two Saint Valentines emphasize their miracles and acts of self-sacrifice rather than their links to love and romance. The connection to love and romance didn’t come until later. The intriguing blend of legend and history surrounding these saints only adds to the allure of Valentine’s Day.

The Transition from Pagan Rituals to Christian Feast Day

While Valentine’s Day traces its history back to ancient Rome, we must remember that it originated not from Lupercalia’s pagan rituals but from the Christian celebration of Saint Valentine’s feast day in the third century. The turning point came when Pope Gelasius decided to Christianize the pagan celebration and put an end to Lupercalia.

In a strategic move, February 14 was declared as Valentine’s feast day to honor the martyred Saint Valentine, effectively replacing the pagan festival with a Christian celebration. This selection of February 14 demonstrated the early church’s intent to shift the focus of existing pagan festivals toward Christian worship.

Therefore, Valentine’s Day transformed from a day steeped in pagan rituals to a Christian feast day. But it was not until the Middle Ages that it began to take on romantic connotations and evolve into the celebration of love that we know today.

The Middle Ages: A Turning Point for Romantic Connotations

Geoffrey Chaucer's influence on Valentine's Day

The Middle Ages marked a significant turning point for Valentine’s Day. It was during this time that the day became associated with romantic love, thanks to the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, the famous English poet.

In his poem, Chaucer weaves a tale of love and courtship, setting the scene on Valentine’s Day. This association of Valentine’s Day with romantic love, as portrayed in Chaucer’s work and later echoed by William Shakespeare, resonated deeply in medieval society, shaping the holiday’s future trajectory.

Simultaneously, the heart shape, now synonymous with love, began to appear in medieval artworks and literature. This reflected the evolving concept of love during that era, further cementing Valentine’s Day’s association with romance.

The Evolution of Valentine's Day Celebrations

Evolution of Valentine's Day cards

As we traverse the historical timeline of Valentine’s Day, the evolution of the celebrations over time is quite intriguing. From handwritten greetings in the 1400s to mass-produced cards in the 19th century, the tradition of expressing love through written notes has remained a cornerstone of Valentine’s Day.

In the 18th century, printed verse guides were sold to help people express their feelings. These guides often came adorned with pictures, adding a visual element to the heartfelt messages. The popularity of these early commercial Valentines was evident in late 18th-century England, with 60,000 cards sent despite high postal costs.

The introduction of the Penny Black stamp in 1840 significantly reduced postal rates, leading to a surge in Valentine’s Day card sending the following year. This surge marked the beginning of what would become a widespread tradition of exchanging Valentine’s Day cards.

From Courtly Love to Mass-Produced Valentines

The 18th century saw the tradition of exchanging handmade Valentine’s cards adorned with lace and ribbons. These cards, crafted by a young man’s Valentine writer, often contained puzzles and poetic forms sealed with wax, emphasizing courteous and intricate courtship rituals.

However, this tradition underwent a shift with the production of the first¬†mass-produced valentines, known as ‚Äėmechanical‚Äô valentines, marking the onset of commercialization. Esther Howland‚Äôs assembly-line process for card-making in the mid-19th century played a significant role in this transition.

Victorian Valentines offered a range of designs, from affordable paper cutouts to pricier materials like real lace. This indicated a diversification of the market, catering to various customer needs and preferences.

Red Roses and Romantic Gestures: Modern Traditions

Modern Valentine's Day traditions

Exchanging cards, chocolates, and red roses are part of the modern Valentine’s Day traditions. These staples of Valentine’s Day are traditional expressions of affection, with gifts like:

Being widely exchanged.

The custom of Valentine’s Day gift-giving was further established in the Victorian era. Richard Cadbury introduced the first Valentine’s Day candy box, adding sweetness to the romantic celebrations.

The language of flowers, or floriography, became popular in the West during Sweden’s King Charles II’s reign. This added nuance to the act of giving flowers, making it a thoughtful and symbolic gesture on Valentine’s Day.

The rise of the internet has also influenced Valentine’s Day celebrations, with a significant shift towards the sending of Valentine’s Day cards in the form of e-cards. These digital expressions of love have added a modern twist to the traditional exchange of handwritten notes and cards.

Global Perspectives: How People Celebrate Valentine's Day Worldwide

Global perspectives on Valentine's Day

Valentine’s Day is celebrated differently worldwide, reflecting diverse cultural perspectives. In France, for instance, couples exchange flowers and jewelry or enjoy romantic dinners. The average spending on gifts is around fifty euros, showcasing the extent of participation in the holiday.

In Japan, the celebration takes a unique turn. Traditionally, women give chocolates to men on Valentine’s Day. This includes partners, male friends, bosses, and even colleagues. A month later, on White Day, men reciprocate the gesture, usually giving gifts of higher value.

In contrast, Brazil does not celebrate the traditional Valentine’s Day due to its proximity to Carnival. Instead, they honor romantic love on June 12, Dia dos Namorados, a romantic holiday with similar customs of gift exchange and romantic gestures.

Meanwhile, in Israel, the secular day of love, Tu B'Av shares customs with Saint Valentine’s Day in Western societies, marking yet another unique interpretation of this globally celebrated day of love.

The Commercialization of Love: Valentine's Day in the Consumer Age

Even with the rising concerns of over-commercialization, Valentine’s Day persists as a major occasion for consumer spending. Consumer spending on Valentine’s Day is projected to reach $25.9 billion in 2023, marking an 8% increase over the previous year.

While some consumers choose not to celebrate Valentine’s Day in a traditional sense, 28% still partake in alternative activities such as self-treats or gatherings. This demonstrates that the spirit of love and celebration continues to thrive, even amid evolving consumer behaviors.

The robust spending on Valentine’s Day remains evident among retailers despite the cautious air brought by inflation and economic uncertainty. Valentine’s Day features heavy commercialization, with consumers in countries like France and the UK spending significantly on gifts.

Nevertheless, not all are enamored by this commercialized homage to love. Over-commercialization, not having a significant other, and a lack of interest are key reasons behind some people‚Äôs decision not to celebrate Valentine‚Äôs Day, or, as some might say, ‚ÄúValentine's refused.‚ÄĚ

The Symbolism of Cupid and Other Icons

Exploring the history and transformation of Valentine’s Day, one cannot ignore the symbolic importance of Cupid. This iconic figure’s roots are found in Greek mythology as Eros, the powerful god of love, played with the hearts of gods and mortals.

Over time, Eros’s image began to change. By the 4th century BCE, he was depicted less as a formidable heartthrob and more as a child, likely to make him seem less threatening. His Roman counterpart, Cupid, evolved to become a symbol of desire, often portrayed as the cherubic son of Venus, the Roman god, who carried out her wishes.

Today, Cupid is synonymous with Valentine’s Day. He is often depicted as a cherub with a bow and arrow, representing his role in causing people to fall in love. This iconic symbol of love and desire adds a touch of ancient mythology to our modern celebrations of love.

Valentine's Day Through the Ages: A Timeline

The narrative of Valentine’s Day stretches across centuries, beginning from its early Christian religious observances in 750 CE to the inception of romantic celebrations in the 15th century and their continuation till today. Around 750 CE, the Gelasian Sacramentary included prayers for St. Valentine’s feast, indicating the holiday’s Christian religious observances.

Fast forward to 1400, the French royal court of Charles VI observed Valentine’s Day as a romantic celebration with the creation of the Charter of the Court of Love. This marked a significant milestone in linking Valentine’s Day with romantic love.

The tradition of sending romantic Valentine’s Day messages dates back to the 15th century. The oldest surviving romantic Valentine's message was penned by Charles, Duke of Orleans, in 1415 during his imprisonment in the Tower of London.

Several centuries later, the tradition of expressing love through written notes thrives as an integral part of Valentine’s Day celebrations. The evolution of Valentine’s Day from a religious observance to a global celebration of love is a testament to the enduring appeal of this special day.


As we journey through the centuries, it’s clear that the essence of Valentine’s Day lies not just in the gifts exchanged or the cards sent but in the celebration of love itself. From the mysterious Saint Valentine and the ancient Roman feasts to the romantic verses penned in the Middle Ages, Valentine’s Day has woven a rich tapestry of history and tradition.

Whether it’s a day of commercial excess or an opportunity to express heartfelt emotions, Valentine’s Day continues to captivate hearts worldwide. So, as we celebrate love in all its forms this Valentine’s Day, let’s remember the rich history that has shaped this special day and the enduring power of love that continues to inspire us.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the real story of Valentine's Day?

The real story of Valentine's Day dates back to the third century when Emperor Claudius II executed two men named Valentine on February 14. One of the accounts of St. Valentine suggests he was a priest who defied a Roman decree prohibiting soldiers from marrying.

What is the main history of Valentine's Day?

Valentine's Day has its origins in the execution of two Valentines by Roman Emperor Claudius II in the 3rd century, and the Catholic Church established St. Valentine's Day to honor these martyrs. The day later became associated with romantic love during the 14th and 15th centuries in connection with the concepts of courtly love.

Why do we celebrate Valentine's Day?

We celebrate Valentine's Day in honor of a martyr named Valentine, and it has become a significant cultural, religious, and commercial celebration of romance and love in many regions of the world.

Is Valentine's Day a pagan holiday?

Yes, Valentine's Day has origins in the pagan holiday Lupercalia, which was a festival in Ancient Rome celebrating fertility and purification. Men would strip naked and sacrifice animals as part of the ritual.

Who was Saint Valentine, and how is he linked to Valentine's Day?

Saint Valentine is linked to Valentine's Day through his acts of performing secret weddings and self-sacrifice, leading to his martyrdom on February 14.

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