The Strange but True Story Behind Valentine's Day (2024)

While this is not your conventional story about Valentine’s Day that’s filled with romance, it’s a fascinating take on a tradition that is widely celebrated on February 14 in many countries around the world.

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Strange but true…

You are looking at the skull of an ancient Roman Martyr named Valentine which resides in the Rome, in the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. Whether or not it’s the skull of the martyr who inspired Valentine’s day is a matter of some debate, to put it mildly. Bound up in this debate is the unexpected history of one of the world’s most curious holidays.

The Strange but True Story Behind Valentine's Day (1)

Let’s start from the beginning…who was Saint Valentine?

The better question is ‘who were?’ Depending on who’s counting, there are between 12 and 14 Saint Valentines, including a Spanish hermit and a woman – Valentina. Turns out, it was a pretty common name during Late Antiquity. As far as anyone can tell, the Saint Valentine of Valentine’s Day was one of two guys preaching the good word in Rome in the third century. One of these two was martyred on February 14th 269, thus giving us the date for his eponymous day.

So what did this guy, er, guys, have to do with love and greeting cards, and overpriced restaurants?

Absolutely nothing. After he was killed, Valentine’s remains sat in the Catacombs of San Valentino for a while before moving to Santa Maria in Cosmedin (or the Basilica of Saint Valentine in Terni, if you support the claim of the other Valentine) where they were visited by pilgrims for many years. They probably would have remained venerated, but somewhat anonymous relics for the patron saint of beekeepers and people suffering from the plague had it not been for Chaucer.

What does an English medieval poet have to do with a Roman martyr?

As far as anyone can tell, this guy is the reason that people spend billions of dollars on cards, candies, and flowers every February 14th.

Geoffrey Chaucer has nothing to do with Roman martyrs but he has a lot to do with English literature and that’s how he created a connection between Saint Valentine and love celebrations. The first written connection between love and Valentine’s Day appears in his poem, Parlement of Foules, written in the late 14th century. He appears to have simply invented the correlation and chalked it up to poetic license, though it’s also possible that he was drawing from older courtly traditions.

So Valentine’s Day is basically a sham invented by a poet in order to make his lines rhyme?

A vintage example of a mass-produced valentine from America | Photo by Karen Horton via Flickr

Not exactly. Shortly after Chaucer mentioned love on Valentine’s Day, real-life lovers began to send each other love poems on February 14th. (it’s possible that these predate Chaucer, but we simply don’t know.) To put that another way, people have been writing valentines to their loved ones for over 500 years, so even if there’s no direct connection to a guy who was murdered horribly by ancient Roman pagans, it’s still part of a serious legacy of love.

That’s actually pretty heartwarming. I thought it was just another Hallmark Holiday…

Not so fast. Modern Valentine’s day is very much a product of the various industries that benefit from it – namely, stationery, chocolate, flowers, and jewelry. Every year, billions of dollars are spent on these items, even in countries where Western holidays are frowned upon or outlawed have seen an upsurge in Valentine’s Day gifts in recent years. In Saudi Arabia, where the holiday is illegal, there is a thriving black market for red roses and heart-shaped chocolates in February.

Interestingly in Japan, possibly due to a translation error in an early chocolate ad (the holiday was imported from the United States after the Second World War), women are expected to give chocolate to lovers, boyfriends, and even male co-workers. However, Japan also celebrates a gift-giving tradition on March 14th where they are expected to give white chocolates of equal or greater value to anyone who gave them chocolate in February.

All of this for an old skull sitting in a church in Rome?

The Scala Sancta is one of the largest relics in the world. An entire stone staircase brought from the Holy Land by Saint Helena, it is supposedly the same one that Jesus ascended on his way to being judged by Pontius Pilate.

Not just any old skull. Relics comprised the backbone of Rome’s original tourism industry which sprung up during the Middle Ages and was based around Christian Pilgrims who came to visit the City’s many churches and holy sites. Relics, in particular, became huge tourist draws because of the miraculous powers they were thought to contain – some of which could be transferred to the faithful who came in contact with them. In our less credulous time, relics have lost some of their ability to draw visitors but they remain impressive, and sometimes macabre additions to many of the churches in Rome.

Update notice: This article was updated on January 10, 2023.

The Strange but True Story Behind Valentine's Day (6)

by Martina V.

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The Strange but True Story Behind Valentine's Day (2024)


The Strange but True Story Behind Valentine's Day? ›

While the date is meant to honor Saint Valentine's death and burial, which supposedly occurred in mid-February around 270 AD, some historians believe the date could reflect the Catholic Church's attempt to replace the ancient Pagan celebration of Lupercalia

Lupercalia, also known as Lupercal, was a pastoral festival of Ancient Rome observed annually on February 15 to purify the city, promoting health and fertility. Lupercalia was also known as dies Februatus, after the purification instruments called februa, the basis for the month named Februarius. › wiki › Lupercalia
— a fertility festival for the pagan agricultural god Faunus — ...

What is the real story behind Valentine's day? ›

Turns out, it was a pretty common name during Late Antiquity. As far as anyone can tell, the Saint Valentine of Valentine's Day was one of two guys preaching the good word in Rome in the third century. One of these two was martyred on February 14th 269, thus giving us the date for his eponymous day.

What is the hidden truth about Valentine's day? ›

The festival was meant to encourage a woman's fertility and pay homage to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, as well as Romulus and Remus, the Roman founders. It began with the sacrifice of a goat (representing fertility) and a dog (representing purification).

What is the dark story behind Valentine's day? ›

One Valentine was a priest in third-century Rome who defied Emperor Claudius II after the ruler outlawed marriage for young men. St. Valentine would perform marriages in secret for young lovers, ultimately leading to his death.

What does the Bible say about Valentine's day? ›

1 John 4:7-12. Dear friends: let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.

What is the actual point of Valentine's day? ›

It originated as a Christian feast day honoring a martyr named Valentine, and through later folk traditions it has also become a significant cultural, religious and commercial celebration of romance and love in many regions of the world.

What is the logic behind Valentine's day? ›

While imprisoned, Valentine cared for his fellow prisoners and also his jailor's blind daughter. Legend has it that Valentine cured the girl's blindness and that his final act before being executed was to write her a love message signed 'from your Valentine'. Valentine was executed on 14 February in the year 270.

What is the tragic story of Valentine's day? ›

Saint Valentine was discovered and imprisoned in a torture-ridden Roman jail, where he fell in love with a mysterious girl (believed to be his prosecutor's daughter). He sent her a love letter signed 'from your Valentine' right before his execution, thus originating the romantic sign-off still widely used today.

What is the biblical story behind Valentine's day? ›

A stock explanation of the holiday is that a Christian priest in Rome, named Valentine, who conducted marriage ceremonies for soldiers forbidden by the state, was arrested as part of the Roman persecution of Christians.

What is the deeper meaning of Valentine's day? ›

It is about sacrifice and devotion, love and honor, in the face of overwhelming and dangerous odds. While making your Valentine's Day plans, remember St. Valentine who was willing to give his life in pursuit of love and marriage, and ask yourself if you would be willing to do the same for those you profess to love.

What is the spiritual truth about Valentine's day? ›

The origins of Valentine's Day can be traced back to ancient Roman times when it was a festival dedicated to the Roman god of fertility. As time passed, the festival evolved and was eventually associated with the Christian Saint Valentine, and it became a day to celebrate love and romance.

What is Valentine stand for? ›

Valentines and Valentine's Day get their name from feast day of Saint Valentine, but there are at least two saints named Valentine, one of whom became a martyr around the year 270 CE. The name Valentine comes from a Latin word meaning “strength.”

Is Valentine's day a pagan holiday? ›

Some scholars have suggested that Valentine's Day has its roots in the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia. Celebrated on February 15, Lupercalia was a bloody and even brutal affair in which animals would be sacrificed in the Lupercal cave at the base of Palatine Hill in Rome.

What is the actual meaning of Valentine? ›

1. : a sweetheart chosen or complimented on Valentine's Day. 2. a. : a gift or greeting sent or given especially to a sweetheart on Valentine's Day.

Who was the real killer in Valentine? ›

Adam Carr/Jeremy Melton. Adam Carr, formerly known as Jeremy Melton, also known as Cupid or The Cherub, is the main antagonist of the 2001 film Valentine, based on the 1996 mystery novel of the same name by Tom Savage.

What is the bloody origin of Valentine's day? ›

The day is named after a Christian priest, Valentinus, who lived in the late third century AD and was beheaded on the orders of the pagan Roman emperor Claudius II on 14 February, a date subsequently commemorated by Christians as his feast day. But how did this bloody tale transform into a celebration of love?

What was the original Valentine's day massacre? ›

Valentine's Day Massacre. On February 14, 1929, seven members and associates of George “Bugs” Moran's bootlegging gang were lined up against a wall and shot dead inside the garage at 2122 North Clark Street. Al Capone's Chicago Outfit was widely suspected of ordering the hit, but no one was ever prosecuted.

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