A Brief and Decidedly Incomplete History of Valentine’s Day

Everyone has an opinion on Valentine’s Day, regardless of their relationship status. There are angry and bitter singles who hate that there is a whole day dedicated to those in relationships. There are those in relationships, and they make it known… All. Day. Long. There are people in relationships who loathe the holiday because of the unspoken obligation to outwardly express their love with flowers, chocolates, and, most economically draining, thoughtful gifts. So when did Valentine’s Day start and why has it turned from a holiday about love to a holiday about money?


Saint Valentine, The Catholic Church, and the Romans


There was a law in Rome in the third century that discouraged marriage because Emperor Claudius II believed marriage made soldiers weak. Saint Valentine, a priest at the time, disagreed with this belief and once the emperor found out about their difference of opinion, he jailed Valentine. While in jail awaiting execution, Valentine fell in love with the jailer’s daughter. He left her a note before he was put to death that was signed, “from your valentine.” There is another version of the story that claims there were two men, both named Valentine, who were executed on February 14 and their martyrdom was honored by the Catholic Church.

Though these two tales gave us the name of the holiday, the feast day of Saint Valentine also falls on the same day as Lupercalia to give us a holiday surrounding love and romantic relationships. Lupercalia was a holiday celebrated by the Romans in the beginning of spring, filled with nudity, whipping women in the hopes of improving their fertility, sexual relations among couples, and animal sacrifice… yikes. Not exactly how we celebrate Valentine’s Day today, but it was the first time love and the concept of a valentine was connected to February 14.



My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand to smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.” William Shakespeare. Whether you love or hate his work, we have all heard of The Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. Countless other works have been inspired by these star-crossed lovers, and many believe it is the most romantic story that has ever been told. Shakespeare also alludes to Cupid and Saint Valentine in his comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Writers, including Shakespeare, often tell stories of young couples, replete with romantic monologues and impulsive acts of passion. Chaucer references Valentine’s Day in one of his poems. Donne uses cheerful adjectives while talking about the birds chirping on Valentine’s Day. These classic authors discuss the love in the air and the butterflies in the stomachs of couples on Valentine’s Day. The way literature romanticizes the holiday has undoubtedly affected how we view the holiday today.


The Commercialization of Valentine’s Day in the United States

Specifically in the United States, magazines and popular publications in the 1840s began endorsing Valentine’s Day and convincing the public to purchase gifts for their significant others on the holiday. Cards, chocolates, jewelry, and thus, Valentine’s Day became about how nice of a gift one can get for their significant other.

Hallmark played the largest part in shaping Valentine’s Day into the red-and-pink heart-filled spectacle we see today. The company began offering Valentine’s Day cards in 1913 and mass producing them in 1916. Thank you Hallmark for our Valentine’s Day traditions, including the overpriced cards and cupid-themed knick-knacks.

There will always be those couples who don’t care about the holiday, and others who countdown to February 14. There are hopeless romantics who are looking for their perfect match on the holiday, while some singles spend the day with their closest friends. But now that you know the origins of Valentine’s Day, and why part of the tradition is to write love notes, do you love or loathe the holiday?

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