Candy Hearts and Bloody Knives: The Weird History of Valentine's Day

If you’re a rational type like I am, you’re probably confused and a little unsettled by Valentine’s Day traditions. Watching couples exchange candy hearts, bouquets of roses, and cheap, brightly colored, insipidly smiling teddy bears makes me feel a bit like an anthropologist, or the narrator of a nature documentary. Here we see the customary mating rituals of homo sapiens infatuatus. Watch closely as the male presents his beloved with a hot pink stuffed monkey, a customary token of his affection. The female has prepared her offering in return: a greeting card that sings the traditional ballad “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” accompanied by a box of bad-tasting chocolates.

I find that understanding the history of things makes them more comprehensible, so I did some research on the history of Valentine’s Day traditions. As it turns out, our weird traditions are rooted in the traditions of centuries past, and–believe it or not–those historical traditions are even weirder. 

Our story begins (as so many stories do) in Ancient Rome, where the festival of Lupercalia was celebrated every year on the Ides of February. Lupercalia–from the Latin lupus for “wolf” and calidus for “hot”: the hot wolf festival–was a fertility festival that marked the beginning of spring in the Mediterranean. A special class of priests called the Luperci sacrificed goats and a dog to Faunus and other Roman fertility gods. Then, two of the Luperci approached the altar, where their foreheads were touched with the bloody knife and cleaned with milk. Finally, the two Luperci cut the hides of the sacrificial animals and fashioned them into whips, then ran naked through the streets of Rome whipping the women they passed by. A touch of the Lupercalia whip was believed to grant a woman fertility until the next year. 

Shakespeare enthusiasts and Roman history scholars may recognize the Ides of February as significant in the life of Julius Caesar. Mark Antony tried to crown him with a laurel wreath three times at the Lupercalia festival in 44 BC, an event dramatized in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The display didn’t sit well with the Roman senate, who began plotting to assassinate Caesar a month later on the Ides of March. 

If your partner is expecting a Romantic Valentine’s Day celebration (see what I did there?), you are ill-advised to make any animal sacrifices, plot any assassinations, or get naked and whip people in the streets. To make the transition from Lupercalia to Valentine’s Day, we need to meet another character in our story: St. Valentine. In the Church calendar, February 14 is the feast day of St. Valentine, a martyr during the persecution of Christians in Rome. The details about the life of St. Valentine are quite varied; there are records of two or three Valentines being martyred during this time period, some placing him in Rome and others in Terni, a Roman province in Africa. 

Likewise, there are many stories about Valentine in different accounts of his life, many of which have influenced the Valentine’s Day traditions we know today. For instance, it is said that Valentine healed the daughter of a Roman judge from blindness, resulting in the judge converting to Christianity and baptizing the 44 members of his household. Valentine wrote a note to the judge’s daughter signed “from your Valentine,” which is why people send love notes on February 14.  

Another story focuses on St. Valentine’s association with romantic love and marriage. During the persecutions in Rome, it was forbidden for couples to be married in a Christian ceremony. As part of his ministry to the Church, St. Valentine is said to have married Christian couples in secret, demonstrating his piety and respect for marriage as a Christian sacrament. 

Unfortunately, the most historically likely part of Valentine’s life is also the most gruesome. He was martyred under Emperor Claudius on February 14, 269 AD. According to legend, the Romans first tried to kill him with stones and clubs, but failed. Afterwards, Valentine was beheaded and hastily buried, then his followers disinterred his body to give him Christian burial. 

Although the martyrs of the early Church were canonized as saints rather quickly, St. Valentine’s feast day was not celebrated the way it is now until the Middle Ages. While the Roman Empire had become mostly Christian, certain pagan festivals stuck around, including Lupercalia. Pope Gelasius I forbade the celebration of Lupercalia in 496, and people began celebrating St. Valentine’s Day with more pomp and circumstance instead. Valentine’s Day was first recognized as a love holiday in the Late Middle Ages thanks to the great poet (and not-so-great ornithologist) Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer’s poem “Parliament of Foules” mentions that “Seynt Valentynes Day” is when birds begin their mating season–a common belief in Medieval Europe. The poem must have solidified Valentine’s Day as a romantic holiday, as love letters addressed to one’s Valentine first appear in the years soon after the poem’s publication. 

My fellow rationalist history nerds, there’s still plenty for us to celebrate on Valentine’s Day. While I can’t trace the history of those pink stuffed monkeys, our Valentine cards and love poems with sketchy details about birds have a long and rich pedigree. And while the more commercialized aspects of Valentine’s Day still elude me, at least we don’t sacrifice goats or get whipped in the streets by naked priests anymore. If there’s anything to be learned from the history of Valentine’s Day, perhaps it is that love–in all its forms–can sustain us through trials and persecutions of any kind, even if we’re beheaded at the end of the day. Now that’s worth celebrating.