Go to triangular compass
Left arrow

The Bloody History of Valentine’s Day

February 9, 2024
Share on Twitter
Share on Facebook
Share on Linkedin
Copy Link

Stay Up to Date on American Grit

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

The true story of Saint Valentine’s life is significantly bloodier than we are led to believe, intertwining ancient Roman rituals and early Christian martyrs. So ditch the flowers and buckle up, you blood thirsty sweethearts.

The earliest roots of Valentine's Day trace back to the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia, which ran between the 13th and 15th of February. A pagan tradition of the time, Lupercalia was a pastoral festival intended to ensure fertility and ward off evil spirits. Roman priests, known as Luperci, congregated in a cave believed to be the birthplace of Romulus and Remus, the mythological founders of Rome (who, like most infantry, were raised by a literal wolf). Goats and dogs would be sacrificed for purification and fertility of those gathered and the people as a whole. Afterward, the Luperci would cut strips known as thongs from the animal hides, something we would recognize today as short whips, and roam the streets playfully lashing women with them. Far from being hurtful, it was believed that being touched by these thongs would enhance fertility and ease childbirth, and when you give birth standing up every little bit helps.

As with the rest of the Roman Empire, Christianity eventually seeped in and decided to co-opt this ritual while suppressing pagan worship. This led to the establishment of St. Valentine's Day, named after one or more early Christian martyrs, named Valentine. Unfortunately, this plan was not well recorded, so the exact identity of this Valentine is murky, with several legends and martyrs associated with the name, just the sort of thing the internet loves.

One of the more popular stories tells of a Christian priest named Valentine, who lived during the reign of Emperor Claudius II in Rome from 268 to 270 C.E. Claudius, a militaristic emperor, believed that single men made better soldiers, and in the grand tradition of terrible leadership, outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine, correctly deciding this was an ignorant idea, defied the emperor's decree and continued to perform marriages in secret. When Valentine’s actions were eventually discovered, Claudius ordered Valentine's execution. Another version suggests Valentine was killed for attempting to help Christians escape harsh Roman prisons. Whichever version was the correct one, the Roman government was harsh on those seeking to follow the older tradition, often violently so.

As the centuries passed and the truth of the story decayed, the day dedicated to St. Valentine became increasingly associated with romantic love. Possibly encouraged by the timing of the festival coinciding with the start of the mating season of birds in Europe, this association was built upon, adding a natural connection to love and fertility. (That’s right, you have to make a flashy show of it because of Roman priests, a murdered Christian priest, and horny birds.) By the Middle Ages, Valentine had become one of the most popular saints in England and France, no small feat given the sheer number of them by that point.

Something to keep in mind is that love was not often the reason behind marriage in history. Even the origin of Saint Nicholas is directly tied to dowries, fees paid to a man’s family to marry a woman, being necessary to find three women husbands. The shift to love being the predominant factor wouldn’t become common until much closer to our time. The gradual melding of the romantic elements of St. Valentine's story with the remnants of Lupercalian traditions began in the 14th and 15th centuries, (the first “X hearts X inscription wouldn’t appear until the 16th century in fact), and during this period the notion of courtly love flourished. It soon became fashionable to express love and admiration through the writing of love letters and poems, as evidenced by writers we still study today like Geoffry Chaucer, author of the Canterbury Tales. This poetry was equal parts romantic and raunchy, even to modern sensibilities. This period also saw the beginnings of the practice of sending small gifts and handmade cards, though there were a lot of class specific rules involved.

As with most things, eventually Valentine's Day became commercialized for profit in the 18th century, with the mass production of greeting cards and the increased availability of confectionery and flowers. In the United States, Esther A. Howland is credited with popularizing the first mass-produced Valentine's Day cards in the 1840s, embellished with lace and ribbons. Instead of expressing love on your own terms, you could just pop down to the shops and purchase all the products you needed. Valentine's Day became a significant cultural and commercial phenomenon as it became ‘easier’ and more thoroughly marketed.

In contemporary times, Valentine's Day has evolved into a global celebration of love and affection, stripped of its darker animal sacrifices and priest beheadings. It's a day where people express their feelings to loved ones, through cards, flowers, gifts, and acts of “service”. The holiday generates significant economic activity, with billions of dollars spent annually on Valentine's Day-related products, but any partner worth keeping will tell you that just doing something special that is unique to them will do wonders. Make a gift, take them to a place, or do the thing, but always remember that flowers for no reason on a random Wednesday work too. And maybe don’t mention the animal sacrifice at dinner… 

send a letter to congress
Adds section
Next Up
No items found.