The tragic, unromantic history of Valentine's Day (2024)

Oh, Valentine’s Day: the annual day of romance, roses, cards, hearts, chocolates, and maybe even wedding rings. At least, that’s what we’ve come to know of it. But how did this romantic holiday begin? You may be surprised by the religious, mysterious, bizarre, and bloody origins of the now-commercialized and cheery day of love. What is the history? Who was Saint Valentine, anyway?

V-Day is one of the most consumer-centric holidays of the year, with more than a billion cards sent annually, surpassing all other holidays except Christmas. But unlike many other holidays, there are a lot of unknown facts about the lovey-dovey holiday’s origins. In fact, some of the history is nothing more than a confusing mix of age-old legends.

So, what should be the true meaning of Valentine’s Day?

  • Who was Saint Valentine?
  • History of Valentine’s Day: Pagan or Christian?
  • So, why the romance?
  • Why Cupid and Valentine’s Day?
  • The first Valentine’s Day greeting cards
  • Valentine’s Day around the world

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History of Valentine’s Day: Pagan or Christian?

Valentine’s Day history has somewhat blurred origins. Why is Valentine’s Day in mid-February? 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 — a fertility festival for the pagan agricultural god Faunus — with a Christian event in memory of the saint.

At this pagan event, which traditionally took place on 15 February, Roman men allegedly drew the names of Roman women from a jar to be coupled with during the festival, often leading to true love, or so the story goes. Lupercalia became officially outlawed in the late 400s when Pope Gelasius replaced it by deeming 14 February as Saint Valentine’s Day.

In short, it could be said that the meaning of Valentine’s Day commemorates Saint Valentine’s brutal and bloody three-part execution – beating, stoning, and beheading – because of his secret support of Christian marriages. 14 February symbolizes the date he died or possibly because Christians needed to replace the pagan Lupercalia.

The first Valentine’s Day greeting cards

The history of Valentine’s Day cards is a more modern story. Though vocal greetings were exchanged during the holiday’s fifth-century origins, writing and sending cards didn’t become common practice until the 1400s when the Duke of Orléans sent one to his wife from the Tower of London’s prison. King Henry V soon joined the trend by hiring a writer to write a Valentine’s card for Catherine of Valois.

When Valentine’s Day became more popular in England in the 1600s and the United States in the 1700s, hand-written greetings, as well as small gifts, became more common. The aptly-named Mother of the Valentine, Esther Howland, is credited with the first homemade valentine cards, using elaborate lace, tapes, and photos called scrap.

Modern printing largely replaced the hand-written tradition in the 1900s; in 1913, Hallmark began their first batch of mass-produced valentine’s cards.

Valentine’s Day around the world

Which countries celebrate Valentine’s Day? While many countries have typical celebrations and the typical traditions of cards, flowers, chocolates, and fancy dates, some countries have some very unique traditions to celebrate the romantic holiday; if you’re dating someone from a different culture than yours, your valentine might approach the day differently.

The tragic, unromantic history of Valentine's Day (2)

Add some international flair to your romantic ideas by see how the world celebrates Valentine’s Day.

Valentine’s Day in Belgium

As the holiday is not as commercialized in Belgium, the Belgians aren’t known for being especially festive on the day itself. But, as the chocolate capital of the world, it’s no surprise chocolate features highly on the gift list, even if purchased at the last minute. Dating rules in Belgium, however, is where you might find more differences.

How to say ‘I love you’ in Belgium: Ik zie je graag or Ik hou van jou (Dutch), or je t’aime (French)

How to say ‘Happy Valentine’s Day’ in Belgium: just “Happy Valentine’s Day”

Valentine’s Day in Denmark

The Danish make their Valentine’s Day their own by sending folded white paper flowers known as snowdrops.

In addition, they add humor to their hand-written cards, as well as keep them anonymous to keep you guessing about your secret admirer.

Valentine’s Day in France

The French have been celebrating Valentine’s Day in some form since the Middle Ages. It is still a very popular, commercialized celebration today. In fact, more than 70% of the French take part in the day of love, spending an average of €50 on gifts such as flowers or jewelry. See what other French dating rulesyou need to brush up on.

How to say ‘I love you’ in French: Je t’aime

How to say ‘Happy Valentine’s Day’ in French: Bonne St-Valentin

Valentine’s Day in Germany

Germans only started celebrating Valentinstag shortly after the Second World War, from American soldiers stationed in the country. Cards are not as common in Germany; instead, Germans prefer more elaborate love declarations. A common German Valentine’s tradition is to give a heart-shaped gingerbread cookie. The cookie is complete with an affectionate icing message and a long ribbon so that the gift can be worn before eaten. Learn more about dating in Germany.

How to say ‘I love you’ in German: Ich liebe Dich

How to say ‘Happy Valentine’s Day’ in German: Alles gute zum Valentinstag, Schönen Valentinstag, or Happy Valentinstag

Valentine’s Day in Japan

On this particular day, Japanese dating strays away from traditional gender ideas. Instead, women first give chocolates to the men. Much thought goes into whether it should be giri chocolate (for friends and acquaintances) or honmei chocolate (for your true love).

Women in Japan receive gifts exactly one month later on White Day. On this day, men give women white chocolate or other tokens.

Valentine’s Day in the Netherlands

It’s perhaps no surprise that the tulip-loving nation’s celebrations have flowery origins. While Valentijnsdag didn’t become widely-celebrated until the 1990s, its origins stem from flower day. The National Organization for Florists declared this day asa way to sell more flowers locally versus exporting them all on the romantic holiday. Thus, a card and flowers are still popular gifts for the Dutch, though these aren’t the only common gifts when dating Dutch men and women.

How to say ‘I love you’ in Dutch: Ik hou van jou

How to say ‘Happy Valentine’s Day’ in Dutch: Fijne valentijnsdag

Valentine’s Day in the Philippines

Perhaps the most contrasting tradition occurs in the Philippines, where a Valentine’s Day trend has started of mass weddings. Hundreds of couples gather in the same place to either exchange or renew their vows.

In 2015, more than 700 couples took part in the new tradition. Because on the day of romance, why not make it a group affair?

Valentine’s Day in Portugal

While the Portuguese celebrate Valentine’s Day similar to many other countries, they have one unique tradition: it’s custom to send a woman a gift basket of gourmet treats, and to send a man a basket of their favorite liqueurs.

How to say ‘I love you’ in Portuguese: Eu te amo or eu te quero

How to say ‘Happy Valentine’s Day’ in Portuguese: Feliz Dia dos Namorados

Valentine’s Day in South Africa

In South African culture, women aren’t shy on Valentine’s Day. Rather, they take after the ancient Romans by mimicking Lupercalia traditions. Instead of drawing names, they pin the name of their crush to their shirt for all to see; they do this whether the person knows it already or not.

How to say ‘I love you’ in Afrikaans: Ek het jou lief

How to say ‘Happy Valentine’s Day’ in Afrikaans: Gelukkige Valentynsdag

Valentine’s Day in Spain

Spaniards celebrate Saint Valentine’s Day similar to elsewhere. However, they also have local festivals with similar themes. Valencia, for example, celebrates Saint Dionysius Day (the Spanish patron saint of love) on 9 October by hosting festive parades and gifting women with traditional Mocadora marzipan figurines. In Catalonia, locals celebrate Saint George Day, also known as El Día de la Rosa or El Día de la Libre (the day of the rose or book), on 23 April by gifting roses and books.

In light of the commercialism surrounding these holidays, some Spaniards jokingly call the holiday Día de El Corte Inglés, a popular Spanish department store. See what else to expect whendating the Spanish.

How to say ‘I love you’ in Spanish: Te amo or te quiero

How to say ‘Happy Valentine’s Day’ in Spanish: Feliz Dia de San Valentin

Valentine’s Day in the United Kingdom

Wales make their Valentine’s Day celebrations unique not by commemorating Saint Valentine, but rather their own Saint Dwynwen. Dwynwen is the Welsh patron saint of lovers; Wales celebrates this saint on 25 January. On this day, love spoons replace the cards; this comes from an old Welsh tradition where men would hand-carve elaborate wooden spoons for their lovers with meanings behind each carved symbol.

The tragic, unromantic history of Valentine's Day (2024)


The tragic, unromantic history of 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. Lupercalia. › 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 dark history of 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 is the pagan origin of Valentine's day? ›

However, many historians believe the day originated from the Roman pagan festival of fertility called Lupercalia, an event filled with animal sacrifice, random coupling and the whipping of women; not quite the romantic chocolate and roses day that we celebrate today.

How did Valentine's day become known as a day of romance? ›

The 8th-century Gelasian Sacramentary recorded the celebration of the Feast of Saint Valentine on February 14. The day became associated with romantic love in the 14th and 15th centuries, when notions of courtly love flourished, apparently by association with the "lovebirds" of early spring.

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 sad 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 spiritual meaning of Valentines day? ›

While the holiday has undergone secularization over time, its origins in Christian martyrdom and acts of love align with broader spiritual themes of compassion, selflessness, and devotion. For some, Valentine's Day serves as a reminder of the importance of love in both human relationships and spiritual practice.

What happens on Lupercalia? ›

The Lupercalia festival took place on February 15 every year in Palatine Hill at the Lupercal cave. The Lupercalia festival began with an animal sacrifice, followed by the Feast of Lupercal. After the Lupercal feast, priests ran from Palatine Hill to the Roman Forum, whipping people with strips of animal hide.

What is the purpose of Valentines day? ›

What is Valentine's Day? St Valentine's Day is an annual festival to celebrate romantic love, friendship and admiration. Every year on 14 February people celebrate this day by sending messages of love and affection to partners, family and friends.

What is the logic behind Valentine's day? ›

Held in mid-February, the festival celebrated the coming of spring with raucous celebrations and fertility rites. At the end of the 5th century, Pope Gelasius forbade the celebration of Lupercalia, and some suggest that he replaced it with a day to celebrate the martyred St. Valentine.

How many Catholic saints are recognized as Valentine? ›

The Catholic Church has recognized at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, and all were martyred. One legend says that Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome.

What are three traditions associated with Valentine's day? ›

Celebrating Valentine's Day in the United States comes with multiple go-to practices. Offering a bouquet of red roses to your beloved. Purchasing a card with a heartfelt message. Sharing a candlelit meal with your partner.

What is the true meaning of the Valentine's day Massacre? ›

St. Valentine's Day Massacre, mass murder of a group of unarmed bootlegging gang members in Chicago on February 14, 1929. The bloody incident dramatized the intense rivalry for control of the illegal liquor traffic during the Prohibition era in the United States.

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?

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