Pagan Sacrifices and Beheadings: A History of Valentine's Day

Valentine’s Day is celebrated on February 14 every year. This year, it is estimated that Americans will spend a total of $19.6 billion, with each individual that plans on celebrating the holiday spending an average of $143.56. The most popular gift this year will be candy, followed by cards, flowers and a night out. Even those who don’t plan to celebrate have some sort of plans this year for Valentine’s Day, whether it just be treating themselves to a night in or gathering with friends and family.

However, initially, Valentine’s Day wasn’t the heartfelt holiday that it is today. The feast of Lupercalia, which was celebrated by the early Romans every year on February 15. The pagan festival included the slaughter of goats and dogs, whose hides were then used to whip women, which was believed to promote fertility. During the festival, couples were also paired up by having men pick names of women out of a box, determining who would be their partner.

It is possible that the reason we celebrate Valentine’s Day as we do today because the Christians at the time opposed the celebration of the pagan festival of Lupercalia. St. Valentine’s name was attached to the holiday because, according to legend, when Roman emperor Claudius, known as “Claudius the Cruel”, banned marriages in order to encourage more men to join the army, Valentine, a holy priest, continued to officiate marriages in secret. Valentine was then arrested for his actions and sentenced to be beaten to death then beheaded on February 14. While in prison awaiting execution, Valentine wrote a final letter to a friend, which he signed “From Your Valentine”, creating a tradition that still lasts today. However, there seems to be two other St. Valentines that, according to the Catholic church, are connected with February 14.

The poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, is credited with creating an association between the holiday and romance. His poem, “The Parliament of Fowls” makes reference to Valentine’s Day as a day where “courtship” occurs. Shakespeare also added to the romanticizing of the holiday when, in “Hamlet”, the holiday is also mentioned by the titular character.

Once Hallmark created their first Valentine’s Day card in 1913, the holiday had turned into the gift-giving holiday that we know today. Greeting cards are the most commonly gifted Valentine’s Day present with about 190 million being sent each year. The candy industry also benefits from Valentine’s Day sales, particularly chocolate and candy hearts, which make up over 75% of these sales.

Roses are also a big part of the holiday with $2 billion projected to be spent on flowers for Valentine’s Day this year alone. In Victorian England, flowers were often used to send messages, and roses were believed to symbolize love. There were quite a few other flowers that were used to mean love, but none were as strong as the rose. Particularly, after the commercialization of Valentine’s Day, roses were often used because of their ability to be shipped long distances, since many flowers do not grow in the northern hemisphere in February. Roses were just as beautiful after being boxed up and shipped as they were when they were first picked.

Today, Valentine’s Day, while highly commercialized, is a day to celebrate love and happiness, which is why so many people are excited to celebrate with those they care about, whether it be friends, family or a significant other. However you decide to celebrate this year (or even if you decide not to celebrate), I think we all can agree to be thankful that there are no pagan sacrifices involved.