Artistic depiction of Saint Valentine
During the Lupercalia festival, men ran nude through the city, whipping eager women to promote fertility.

This time of year, as the store aisles fill up with heart-shaped chocolates and cards, it’s not uncommon to hear from the more cynical among us that “Valentine’s Day was invented by the Hallmark Company to sell us stuff”. While the commercialization of V-Day is most definitely real, the origins extend much further back than a single corporate card company - and has copious amounts of nudity, flagellation, and animal sacrifice to boot. 

You’re not gonna see that on a Hallmark card.

Pagan Origins of Lupercalia

Most historians trace the origins of Valentine’s Day to an ancient Roman holiday known as Lupercalia. The pagan fertility celebration of Lupercalia took place February 13th, 14th, and 15th. Men sacrificed goats and dogs, stripped their hides, and then ran through the city square in the nude, literally whipping women, all in celebration of fertility. Many women would actually line up and volunteer for the lashing, believing it a fertility blessing.

Even after Christianity’s legalization in Rome, the pagan holiday remained for a century and a half, too popular with the populace to be abandoned. Pope Gelasius eventually did shut down Lupercalia for its pagan origins… but soon after, many historians believe, the Catholic Church rebranded Lupercalia as a new, Christian holiday by declaring an annual feast for Saint Valentine on February 14th.

Saint Valentine

Saint Valentine was a martyred Roman priest who eventually was canonized as the patron saint of lovers. He had a very, very, very bad time.

Artistic depiction of Saint ValentineWhile the true history is a bit murky since all of this took place nearly 2,000 years ago, it is agreed that Saint Valentine was arrested and martyred around 270 AD. As we wrote in 2014: 

“According to the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493), he was arrested and imprisoned after being caught performing wedding ceremonies for Christian couples and otherwise aiding Christians being persecuted by Claudius--a grave crime at the time. Claudius actually grew fond of Valentinus as a prisoner, but when the priest tried to convert the emperor to Christianity, he was beaten and beheaded outside the Flaminian Gate in Rome on 14 February.”

Saint Valentine’s connection to romance is a bit murky. Some historians believe that it was Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare who solidified the connection between Saint Valentine and romance. Chaucer links romance directly to Valentine’s Day in his poem The Parlement of Foules, which describes birds gathering in the early spring, on ‘seynt valentynes day’, to pair off and mate. William Shakespeare followed Chaucer’s example in Hamlet, with the lines:

To-morrow is Saint Valentine's day,

All in the morning betime,

And I a maid at your window,

To be your Valentine.

A Hallmark Era

Hundreds of years later, and we have Valentine’s Day as we know it, as factories sprouted up and mail became very cheap in Victorian England - perfect for sending your sweetie a card detailing your love for him or her by post. 

In the United States, valentines began to be mass produced at the end of the 1840s by Esther Howland, a businesswoman so inspired by a valentine she received from an English acquaintance that she imported paper lace and other elegant decorations to begin producing the romantic cards stateside. 

The ‘valentines’ caught on, and Valentine’s Day was soon a bonafide (and commercialized) holiday that only got more popular year after year: 190 million valentines are sent each year in the United States alone.

So this Valentine’s Day, when you’re out with your sweetheart, remember that once upon a time, this holiday looked a little bit different from how you’re celebrating it today.

Well... probably.

9 comments

  1. John Norris Campbell's Avatar John Norris Campbell

    "St. Valentine was arrested and martyred around 270 BC...for performing 'Christian wedding ceremonies'...LOL!! Please tell me EXACTLY HOW these 'christian ceremonies' took place hundreds of years BEFORE Christ? Remember Him? Christ...as in 'Christian'

    1. ULC Admin's Avatar ULC Admin

      Thanks for pointing out the mistake, John. Was a typo -- should read "270 AD." We've corrected the error.

  1. Vsevolod's Avatar Vsevolod

    It would be nice to add that Valentine's canonization helped supplant the celebration of the Lupercalia.

  1. Albert Douglas DuBois's Avatar Albert Douglas DuBois

    The more I learn about all of the celebrations that the church commandeered and placed under their absolute control, the more I realize how much more fun pagans were.

    Nietzsche wrote: "In heaven, all the interesting people are missing"

  1. Carl Bernard Elfstrom's Avatar Carl Bernard Elfstrom

    What a way to spice up my birthday party! I've been having Valentine's Day birthday parties since February 14, 1963, and my Paternal grandmother started having birthdays on the same day in 1905. Of course, Grandma Ethel was too devout of a Roman Catholic, and much to prime and proper to engage in such a drunken orgy, but it sounds like a lot of fun to me. I only need to retrieve my mink whip from my bedroom, and I'll be good to go. I wish ULC would sponsor such a spiritually uplifting festival for us ministers.

  1. Raven Wind Benavides's Avatar Raven Wind Benavides

    Comment removed by author.

  1. Raven Wind Benavides's Avatar Raven Wind Benavides

    Roman and Pagan aren't the same, everyone seems to mix Greek, Roman, and Pagan things together. You're forgetting about 'Imbolc', the real first 'Holiday of Love'. Romans were known for being crazy violent, they did their fair share of slaughtering Pagans. Imbolc isn't a violent or aggressive Holiday by any means. It also started the traditional colors of today's Valentine's day; White for Milk, Blood for a women's first bleeding and the bleeding during a women's first penetration, and Pink for Babies and/or the mixture of Blood and Milk. If you reached womanhood and you were still a virgin, Imbolc was the time to try romantic/sexual love for the first time. There dozens of traditions for Imbolc, fertility rituals, dancing, celebrating the love between family, friends, nature, the love between the Goddess and the Horned God, none of them involve sacrifice. Imbolc (depending on your region) is celebrated on the first of February or the 1st to the 14th, or the 1st to the 3rd.

  1. Janette L Tepas's Avatar Janette L Tepas

    I was told by a local guide in Umbria that Valentine was from that area. He married all the children in his region because the Roman Army always took the boys from each region when they reached a particular teen age, IF they were single. THe families, hoping to save the whole region's boys from this fate, had Valentine marry the children and when the army came through and expected to get the single boys, they found there were none. So Valentine saved all the boys from leaving with the army...more than once.

  1. Janette L Tepas's Avatar Janette L Tepas

    I have been told that Valentine is from a region in Umbria, Italy. The Roman army came through and regularly took all the single boys old enough to be of service (take them away). Valentine then "married" all the the boys in the region and when the army came through they were told there were NO single boys/men for them. So he saved all the boys in the area, but of course that did not make the Roman army very happy. So he became a patron of love, marriage, etc.

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