A Naked Roman, a Catholic Priest and a British Playwright Walk into a Hallmark Store: The Dark and Muddled Evolution of St. Valentine’s Day

By, Justin Ayars, JD

Flowers, candy, red hearts and romance. That's what Valentine's Day is all about, right? Well, maybe not. To understand this festival of candy and cupids, we must have a firm grasp as to how debaucherous pagan rituals, Christian lore and capitalism came to create the holiday as we know it today.

Animal Sacrifice, Wine and Public Sex

As far back as 44 B.C. (the same year Julius Caesar was assassinated), the Romans celebrated the Feast of Lupercalia from February 13-15 to avert evil spirts, purify the city and ensure both health and fertility. The festival celebrated Lupercus (the Roman god of shepherds), Faunus (the horned god of the forest, plains and field) and the mythical she-wolf who nursed the legendary founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, to health.

Detail of Eros Statue

 Did You Know: Cupid, the famous symbol of St. Valentine’s Day, is most likely related to ancient pagan rituals, as Cupid was the little winged Roman god of desire, affection and love.

Every festival began with a ceremonial sacrifice of goats and dogs in the public square. After the animals were killed, everyone would indulge in food and wine. Once the crowd was good and drunk, the young men would shed their clothes, drape the goat and dog skins from the earlier sacrifices on their naked bodies and run around the city whipping women with the animal hides. Believing that being thrashed would make them fertile, young women would line up to be whipped by hordes of drunk, naked men. Perhaps this was a pagan form of in vitro fertilization. The brutal fete concluded in a matchmaking lottery in which men drew the names of women from a bowl. The couple would then fornicate alongside other couples for the duration of the festival. After the festivities concluded, some couples stayed together for a whole year until the next festival when the debaucherous cycle would begin again. Occasionally, some couples were so pleased with their pairings that they actually got married!

Did You Know: In the Middle Ages, young men and women drew names from a bowl to see who their Valentines would be. Unlike the more lascivious Romans, they would wear these names on their sleeves for one week. To wear your heart on your sleeve now means that it is easy for other people to know how you are feeling.

The Roman Empire, the Catholic Church and St. Valentine(s)

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In addition to celebrating the Feast of Lupercalia in mid-February, the ancient Romans had a hand in creating the holiday we now celebrate on February 14th. During the reign of Emperor Claudius II (known as “Claudius the Cruel”), it was illegal for young men to marry because the Emperor believed unwed men made better soldiers. Defying the Emperor’s decree, a priest named Valentine secretly carried out weddings for young soldiers. Supposedly, Valentine gave newly married couples a heart-shaped piece of parchment inscribed with their vows. Once discovered, Valentine was arrested. Legend has it that while he was in jail, he fell in love with his jailer’s blind daughter and miraculously restored her sight. Before his execution on February 14, 278 A.D., Valentine sent the jailer’s daughter a farewell note saying “From your Valentine.” For his service to God, the Catholic Church canonized Valentine after his death.

So there you have it. The origins of St. Valentine’s Day. Well, maybe. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “At least three different Saint Valentines, all of them martyrs, are mentioned in the early martyrologies under the date of 14 February.” One was the priest mentioned above in Rome, the second one was a bishop of Interamna (now Terni, Italy) and the third St. Valentine was a martyr in the Roman province of Africa. Three saints for the price of one! What a bargain!

Valentine’s Day Superstition: If you find a glove on the road on Valentine’s Day, your future beloved will have the other missing glove.

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After the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 A.D., the Catholic Church began to rise in power and influence across the continent. A time-honored practice of the Catholic Church has been to co-opt pagan rituals and turn them into Christian holidays (*cough, Christmas, cough*). In an effort to “Christianize” the popular pagan celebration of Lupercalia, in 496 A.D. Pope Gelasius I instituted an annual feast in honor of St. Valentine to be celebrated every February 14th. Interestingly, the Pope never indicated which Valentine was to be honored during the feast and, to this day, the Catholic Church still isn’t sure. (In fact, by 1969, the Roman Catholic Church had official recognized 11 martyrs named Valentine. That’s helpful.) In stark contrast to the Feast of Lupercalia, the new Christian holiday was designed to be a simple feast of purification. Despite his best efforts, the St. Valentine’s Day feast never really caught on—probably because there wasn’t any wine, orgies or naked men whipping women with goat hides. In fact, the new holiday was not commonly celebrated by the masses for another thousand years.

Chaucer, Shakespeare and the Mating Habits of Birds

So, how did Valentine’s Day go from a pagan orgy, to a Catholic feast of purification to the celebration of love as we know it today? Well, in 1382, Geoffrey Chaucer (of The Canterbury Tales fame) wrote a 700-line poem called Parlement of Foules (or “Parliament of Fowls”), which is widely taken to be the first linking of St. Valentine's Day to romantic love. Celebrating the engagement of Richard II of England and Anne of Bohemia, he wrote: “For this was on St. Valentine's Day,/When every fowl cometh there to choose his mate.” That’s right—the romantic nature of the holiday stems from the mating habits of birds. In France and England during the Middle Ages, it was commonly believed that February 14th was the beginning of birds’ mating season. Wait… birds and bees? Sounds a lot like a middle school sex ed class.

Valentine’s Day Superstition: The kind of bird a girl watches on Valentine’s Day predicts her future spouse. If she watches a sparrow, she’ll marry a poor person. A bluebird, she’ll marry a happy person. A blackbird, she’ll marry a religious person. A crossbill, she’ll marry an argumentative person. An owl, she’ll remain a spinster (singing “Single Ladies” for the rest of her days).

In 1400, the High Court of Love (yes, that was its actual name) opened in Paris to deal with marriage contracts, divorces, infidelity, beaten spouses and other “affairs of the heart.” When did the court open? Why, February 14th, of course! Judges on this court were selected by women based on a poetry reading. Talk about progressive! A few years later, Charles, the Duke of Orleans (a Frenchman) wrote the first recorded Valentine's Day note to his beloved wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 (that was back when the Brits and the French were on not-so-great terms).

St Valentine's Day really began to enter the popular consciousness in 1601 when William Shakespeare mentioned the holiday in Ophelia's lament in Hamlet: “To-morrow is Saint Valentine's day,/All in the morning betime,/And I a maid at your window,/To be your Valentine.” Basically, having the holiday mentioned by Shakespeare was the equivalent of having Oprah select your novel for her book club. Cue Pope Gelasius I doing a happy dance in heaven.

Valentine’s Day Superstition: The first guy’s name you read in the paper or hear on the TV or radio on Valentine’s Day will be the name of the man you marry.

Will You Be My Valentine?

After Chaucer, Shakespeare (and birds) brought romance to St. Valentine’s Day and popularized the holiday, written Valentine’s Day greetings became widespread in Great Britain. By the middle of the 18th century, friends and lovers of all social classes exchanged small tokens of affection or handwritten notes made of lace and paper. In 1797, the The Young Man’s Valentine Writer was published, which suggested appropriate rhymes and messages to share with your beloved. By the early 19th century, more affordable postal services made the anonymous St. Valentine's Day card possible. Thanks to the Industrial Revolution and the increasing popularity of Valentine’s Day greetings, factories began mass-producing cards for the holiday. By 1900, printed cards began to replace ornate, handwritten letters. Ready-made cards were a godsend for people living in Victorian and Edwardian England because they afforded enamored individuals an easy way to express their emotions during a time when direct expression of emotions was discouraged. Remember, no one smiled back then. Ever. Just picture the Dowager Countess of Grantham. Ok, now you got it!

Did You Know: The tradition of giving flowers on Valentine’s Day began in 1715 when the daughter of King Henry IV of France gave a party to honor St. Valentine. At that party, the King’s daughter decreed that each Lady was to receive a floral bouquet from her chosen man.

Across the pond, Americans began exchanging handmade Valentine’s Day greetings in the 1700s. In 1847, Esther A. Howland of Worcester, Massachusetts, known as the “Mother of the Valentine,” began selling the first mass-produced Valentine’s Day cards in America. These cards were elaborate creations made with lace, ribbons and colorful pictures. It wasn’t until just before WWI that one company would change the month of February forever.

Did You Know: Richard Cadbury invented the first Valentine’s Day candy box in the late 1800s?

The Hallmark Revolution and the Commercialization of Love

In 1913, Hallmark Cards produced their first Valentine’s Day cards. Some consider this the beginning of the end for St. Valentine's Day as a genuinely romantic event and the start of its reinvention as a manufactured occasion designed to chisel spare cash out of lovers and would-be lovers worldwide. Now considered the flagship “Hallmark Holiday,” St. Valentine’s Day has not been the same since.

Valentine’s Day Superstition: To be awoken by a kiss on Valentine’s Day is considered very lucky.

Since the “Hallmark Revolution,” the holiday has steadily grown into a marketing and money making machine. According to the Greeting Card Association, more than 25% of all cards sent each year are Valentine’s Day cards—that’s about one billion cards (second only to Christmas when ~2.6 billion cards are sent). In the 1980s, the diamond industry decided it wanted a cut of the profits and began running marketing campaigns promoting Valentine’s Day as a day to give jewelry to show you really loved someone. After all, diamonds are forever (and a girl’s best friend). Today, the holiday is big business: Valentine's Day sales are estimated to total $19.6 billion in 2016 (with the average person spending ~$140). Yikes!

Did You Know: About 3% of pet owners give Valentine’s Day gifts to their pets. Woof.

My Funny Valentine

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Whether or not you choose to celebrate St. Valentine’s Day this year, you have to respect its extraordinary evolution over the centuries. From drunken orgies and the executions of priests to love poems and boxes of chocolates, this holiday has had a wild ride! If you do happen to celebrate St. Valentine’s Day, you’ll know who to thank for the occasion: the ancient Romans, Saint(s) Valentine, Pope Gelasius I, Geoffrey Chaucer, birds, William Shakespeare, Esther A. Howland, and, of course, Hallmark.

Justin Ayars