From Pagan Celebrations to Cheesy Cards, the Evolution of Valentine’s Day

By Belle Arenson, Brenna Class-Welch, Lauren Umbehocker

Everyone knows Valentine’s Day as a holiday full of love, romance, and stuffing your face with chocolate your mom gave you at ungodly hours of the night. But most aren’t aware of the true – and less beautiful – origins of this celebration of romance.

Valentine’s Day originated in Rome as a feast called Lupercalia. It was celebrated as a fertility rite and to welcome the coming of spring. It was partially in honor of the god Faunus, who was a woodland god believed to bestow fertility on farmland and livestock. The festival lasted from Feb. 13 to 15. Each festival began with Luperci, or priests, sacrificing a dog and a goat, followed by a feast. Luperci would take the skins of the sacrificed animals and go around hitting women with them, often while drunk. A blow from one of the animals was believed to make a woman fertile, so women would deliberately get hit, even line up. Luperci were usually young men, and they weren’t priests outside of Lupercalia. The word “Lupercalia” gets its name from the Roman word for wolf, “luper,” It was later adopted by the Pagans, but in the 5th century, Pope Gelasius I adopted the holiday to christianize it and expel the Pagan rituals.

As time progressed Catholicism slowly took over the Roman Empire and previous pagan holidays became less popular. Catholics were substantially more orthodox, so slapping women with the hides of recently sacrificed animals became unsavory and was thus banned.

That leads us to the million dollar question. Where did the name Valentine even come from and why was Valentine’s Day created?

There are plenty  of different Saints named Valentine or Valentinus many of whom have nothing to do with Valentine’s Day. Several such Saints became martyrs and their stories spread across Europe leading to more and more romantic tales.

The first Saint Valentine that sparked the holiday was said to have served as a priest in the third century of Rome during the reign of Emperor Claudius II. This emperor banned the marriage because he believed young men made better soldiers if they had no wife or family. Much like Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet, St. Valentine kept performing ceremonies for young lovers in secret. Eventually he was caught and beheaded by the Emperor.

Another story says that a St. Valentine was captured, held at a Roman prison, and sent the first ‘valentine.’ After being incarcerated for unknown reasons he fell in love with a young girl and wrote a card to her before his death. Most importantly, the card was signed “From your Valentine” which is still used in cards today.

          The Middle Ages romanticized Valentine’s Day, with the Europeans associating the festival with the mating season for birds. The holiday wasn’t centered on affection until, according to a UCLA scholar, Chaucer first linked Valentine’s Day with romance.  In 1381, Chaucer wrote a poem honoring the engagement between English royalty. In Chaucer’s poem, “The Parliament of Fowls,” the royal engagement, the mating season of birds, and Valentine’s Day were all interlinked. Chaucer and Shakespeare romanticized Valentine’s Day in their work, and it gained popularity throughout Britain and the rest of Europe. By the 17th and 18th century, gifts and love-notes were exchanged.

         Back then, even those who were illiterate could express their love by sending the one they admired a simple card with a heart drawn on it. Greeting cards became popular in the 19th century, and by then factory-made cards were in mass production. The mass production of cards made the holiday an easy way to show affection in a society where showing emotion was outside the norm.

         Nowadays, teenagers go through similar problems as couples in the past. Back in the 19th century, public displays of affection were not as widely accepted as they are today. During the time of Emperor Claudius II, young couple could not marry. Even today many teens experience pressure to be in a relationship, or not to be. Is that is the question?

          Society has evolved immensely, but the fear of rejection has not changed. In the 13th century, many wrote love letters or drew hearts for their significant other, today it’s common to text or call someone to share feelings. Confessions might have traveled from paper to iPhone, but the overall message is still the same: love. Valentine’s Day has gone from outrageous Roman feasts, to a bunch of guys all named Valentine being killed, to Shakespeare and Chaucer’s romantic adaptations. Valentine’s Day isn’t only about the romantic love, but also represents friendship and familial love. The holiday of red hearts and chubby cupids didn’t start out lovey-dovey, but with weirdly strict Catholic priests. History helped shape today’s celebration into the Valentine’s Day we all know – cheesy cards, boxed chocolates and awkward dinner-dates.