What do you associate with Valentine’s Day? For some, it’s a day fraught with stress from trying to exceed the expectations of their lovers. For others, it’s a day of exciting opportunity for expressing the love they have for their partner with an excuse to engage in fancy events to spice things up in an otherwise placid routine. Even those who aren’t in relationships aren’t spared from the reminder of the holiday, with gratuitous usage of red and pink hearts everywhere as an aesthetic and chocolate lining the shelves of grocery stores. But how did Valentine’s Day become such a widespread celebration?
The origin myths of Valentine’s Day are not clear and still disputed to this day, but there are two popular schools of thought regarding how the holiday had its beginnings. One of them claims that Valentine’s Day was originally named after Saint Valentine, while the other claims that the holiday was named after a festival called Lupercalia. The Roman festival of Lupercalia welcomed the spring season with deference for Faunus, the god of agriculture, and the founders of Rome: Romulus and Remus. It was celebrated with rites of fertility and pairing women and men through lottery, many of whom became married.
The festival would begin with Roman priests of the Luperci sacrificing a goat for fertility and a dog for purification at a sacred cave. They believed the cave was sacred because it was thought that Romulus and Remus were brought up in that cave by a lupa, or a she-wolf. After the priests killed the goat and dog, they would tear the goat’s hide into stripes and soak them in blood, then slap the women and fields with it as it was believed that it would make the women and crops more fertile. Then the women would put their names into an urn, and like a lottery, the men would pick out a name that would commonly seal the two as a pair to be wed.
The myth surrounding Saint Valentine says that he was a martyr for love with Emperor Claudius II as his fatal opponent. The story goes that Emperor Claudius banned marriage for young men as he believed single men would be more efficient and motivated in battle without the responsibilities and burdens of love and family waiting for them back at home. However, Saint Valentine continued to officiate marriages in secret — which is why Valentine’s Day celebrates love. Unfortunately for Saint Valentine, he was found out, jailed, then beheaded on the fateful date of February 14, 271 A.D.
More modern concepts of coupling for Valentine’s Day started circulating around in the Middle Ages, where the middle of February was known to be the mating season for birds, adding to the romanticism of Valentine’s Day. Geoffrey Chaucer is recorded to be the first to write about Valentine’s Day in this romantic context in his poem “Parliament of Foules” in 1375, saying “For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day / Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.” Then the famous commercialization of the holiday was popularized in the US around the mid-1800s with printouts of valentines with Cupid, the Roman god of love, surrounded by hearts and birds. The candy for sweetness and roses for beauty and love were added on gradually, giving us Valentine’s Day as we know it today.