Red roses, chocolates, a romantic meal, fabulous jewelry... no, we’re not listing the contents of Mariah Carey’s dressing room. We are, of course, describing the perfect Valentine’s Day for many. February 14 has become synonymous with love, relationships, and these days, spending exorbitant amounts of money on grand romantic gestures. But all that lovey-dovey stuff has its origins in something far more sinister. There was a time when Valentine's Day wasn't a day for love at all.
Let's celebrate... love?
As far as modern Valentine’s Day celebrations go, it's been all chocolate and jewelry for centuries. But like most things in life, it was a much different story during the Middle Ages. While Valentine's Day has been recognized for hundreds of years, most of its history certainly hasn’t been romantic. In fact, it was more, well, animal skins and bloodshed.
Traveling back to ancient Rome
Even during the Middle Ages, the notion of romantic love was still pretty new. And given the horrific origin story of the holiday, it’s not hard to see why it took people a while to get on board with the whole "celebrating love" thing. Unsurprisingly, Valentine's Day's bloody origin was in the famously-chill Roman Empire.
Warfare was never far from home
Yes, nothing at all violent and traumatizing happened during ancient Rome's heyday, right? Wrong! Back then, tension among differing religious groups meant that warfare was never far from home. And at that time, it was Christianity that was illegal for people to practice. Of course, many Christians refused to back down — especially devoted clergymen.
Marriage was banned
Apparently, during the third-century reign of Claudius II, the emperor banned soldiers from getting married. The leader believed that single men made better fighters. As a result, anyone caught marrying members of the military would face the death penalty. This, plus the national ban on Christianity, meant that marriage was strictly off the table. After all, who would risk a terrible death just so they could marry the love of their life?
The rebellious clergyman
Well, lots of people, it turned out. And legend has it that one clergyman flouted the ban on Christianity and marriage. This man was thought to have been so dedicated to his faith that he performed secret marriage ceremonies for other Christians despite the potentially brutal consequences.
The execution of Saint Valentine
And it wasn't long before this clergyman, now known as Saint Valentine, found himself in hot water. The theory goes that the man who would become Saint Valentine was sentenced to a gruesome execution around 269 A.D. And unfortunately for the future saint, his death was far from painless. That’s because his execution took place in three stages, starting with a brutal beating.
Three rounds of torture
After being beaten to a pulp, the Christian clergyman endured a public stoning. For those unfamiliar with this practice, it’s exactly as horrendous as it sounds. A group of people throws rocks at the convicted man, usually until they die from blunt force trauma. But in the case of Saint Valentine, the stoning wasn't enough to kill him. There was a final act in store for the minister.
An astonishing miracle
In the final phase of Valentine’s martyrdom, his battered and bruised body was beheaded. There was no doubt about it after that: the clergyman was dead. And it wasn't too long after that he became one of history's most famous saints. The story of how he was canonized may well surprise you, not least because it involves an astonishing miracle.
"From your Valentine"
Legend has it that prior to Valentine’s execution, he had been corresponding with someone special. Whether friend or girlfriend, the female recipient of Valentine's letters was blind. Some say she was actually the daughter of a judge or even Valentine’s jailer’s daughter; either way, he always signed his letters with “From your Valentine.”
They must prove their holiness
Hence, the birth of the very first Valentine’s Day tradition. Of course, that wasn't how Valentine earned his sainthood. In order to become a saint, one (or someone after one's death) must prove that they've lived a pure, holy life dedicated to spreading God's word. Performing a miracle or two obviously doesn't hurt, either, which is exactly what Valentine seemed to do.
In this instance, the miracle Valentine performed in death was that he restored the blind woman’s sight. Having performed a miracle and died horribly due to his faith, Saint Valentine was bound to get a holiday in his honor. And sure enough, the day he was executed — February 14 —is now known as Valentine's Day. But there is one more bizarre (and surprisingly violent) reason the festivities fall in February.
Before Saint Valentine’s execution and subsequent infamy, the Romans took a very different approach to mid-February. For much of the empire’s history, it was a polytheistic culture, meaning they worshiped multiple gods. And many of the ways they practiced their faith was through rituals, some of which were, well, incredibly bloody.
The sacrifice celebration
Taken collectively, these rituals were known as sacrificium, meaning “a sacrifice.” Different gods had different requirements when it came to worship, but this sacrifice generally involved the slaughter of an animal. And these "celebrations" or "ceremonies" could be public or private, serving such purposes as prayer or contacting the dead. Every February, though, things took an even stranger turn.
Not for the faint of heart
The citizens of the empire’s capital city enjoyed some decidedly pagan rituals. It was around this time that Saint Valentine was illegally marrying couples; clearly, there was a real divide between those who practiced Christianity and those who practiced paganism. Many of the latter group took part in a pagan festival from February 13 to 15 every year, and it wasn't for the faint of heart.
A terrible sacrifice
This particular festival was known as Lupercalia, and even for pagans, it was incredibly bizarre. Centered on the wolf-god worshiping Luperci fraternity, Lupercalia really brought its animalistic origins to life. Animal lovers, prepare for a shock: Every February the all-male members would sacrifice a goat followed by a dog.
A pagan ritual
And once the animals had been sacrificed, their skin was removed and cut into pieces. So far, so Roman. Then, though, the Luperci would strip naked themselves and run around the city’s boundary. And we still haven’t gotten to the weird part yet. Carrying the pieces of hide along with them, the nude men would do something utterly odd.
So strange was the Lupercis’ behavior that Greek writer Plutarch was moved to describe it in his biography of Julius Caesar. The young men would, he wrote, “strike those they meet with shaggy thongs.” Weird. But this strange practice may have had a surprisingly wholesome purpose behind it. The wolf-worshipers, it seems, weren't necessarily obsessed with mindless violence.
A fertility ritual
According to Plutarch, “Women of rank also purposefully get in [the Lupercis’] way.” So why would anyone intentionally get struck by animal skin, especially those who are already well-off? Well, in his book, the great author wrote, “They believed that the pregnant will thus be helped in delivery and the barren to pregnancy.” Yes, as incredible as it sounds, the Lupercalia was a fertility ritual.
Too sophisticated for rituals
Whether or not anyone’s fertility was ever affected by being struck with some animal skin remains unclear. What we do know is that Lupercalia was a popular festival among Roman citizens. However, by the end of the fifth century, it seems the ruling classes felt that the ritual was beneath the sophistication of the empire, which led to a big change.
Not initially a festival for lovers
According to some sources, Pope Gelasius despised Lupercalia so much that he banned it. By this time, Christianity had become Rome’s main religion and, as luck would have it, the feast of Saint Valentine fell directly in the middle of the bizarre fertility festival. As a result, the emperor simply changed the focus of the annual celebration. However, Valentine’s Day didn’t become a lover’s festival overnight.
"Little more than a drunken revel"
According to historian Noel Lensch, the celebrations barely changed, to begin with. He told NPR, “It was a little more [than] a drunken revel. But the Christians put clothes back on it.” And, we hope, got rid of the animal skin. He added, “That didn’t stop it from being a day of fertility.”
And that’s really how Valentine’s Day remained for many centuries — a drunken revel that people hoped would result in pregnancy. By the Middle Ages, though, the festival started to take on a more recognizable shape. The concept of romantic love — pairing up with someone you care about — began to flourish around this time.
Tired of love
In fact, some of the earliest surviving Valentine’s messages wonderfully reflect the joy and pain of love. The world’s oldest February 14 note was composed by the French Duke of Orleans in the early 15th century. It read, “I’m already tired of love, my very painful Valentine.” That note, believe it or not, was for his wife... ouch.
Far less dramatic
The oldest surviving English Valentine is far less dramatic, but it’s hardly romantic, either. Penned by Margery Brewes in 1477, she signed off her February 14 message to her fiancee with “my right-well beloved Valentine.” So never let it be said that the British know nothing of the art of seduction! Still, short notes are a world away from Valentine’s traditions that 21st-century romantics are familiar with.
Everything was handmade
Those started in 19th-century Britain, and we’ve got the Victorians to thank for many of them. Let’s start with Valentine’s cards. Before 1840, romantic messages had to be hand-made and then hand-delivered. But something unexpected changed all that.
A mail revolution
In 1840 the postage stamp was invented, allowing Valentines to be sent anywhere in Britain for a penny. And this mail revolution led to 400,000 February 14 messages being sent the following year. But the mail wasn’t the only factor in that massive spike in numbers. There was also one other, now-traditional reason.
As we mentioned earlier, prior to the invention of the postage stamp, mail had to be hand-delivered. So if you were sending a message of love, you had to essentially give it to the recipient in person. Of course, that gave away the secret. But the new system meant that Valentine’s messages could be sent anonymously. And, it seems, potential lovers took advantage of their anonymity.
19th century Valentines
Of course, before you could mail a Valentine’s message, you first had to write one. Thanks to the newly invented mass production of paper, you no longer had to compose that love note yourself. And paper Valentines, as they were known, first became available during the 19th century. Pre-printed with sketches and verses, they were incredibly popular and soon gave way to much fancier versions, covered in ribbons and lace.
Chocolate as a means of seduction
And the tradition of giving a box of chocolates on Valentine’s Day also came from the Victorians. But this allegedly puritanical generation wasn’t handing out delicious cocoa-based treats for the fun of it... or maybe they were. Because as it turns out, they saw chocolate as a means of seduction. Etiquette books of the period even warn women of the dangers of accepting any from strangers.
Professor of food history Rebecca Earle perfectly summed up the Victorian attitude to chocolate. She told Country Living magazine in 2017, “Because chocolates were so closely associated with courtship and sex, Victorian etiquette books warned that single ladies should never accept chocolates ‘from gentlemen to whom they are neither related nor engaged.’”
The ultimate temptation...
And that close association between chocolate and dating may not have been a complete accident. In fact, a striking similarity between the intricately designed boxes and the clothes women of the period wore has been identified by historians. Adorned with and enrobed in lace and ribbons, the layers appeared to mimic the clothing of women, with the ultimate temptation lying underneath in both circumstances.
Red roses every Valentine's Day
The Victorian Valentine’s traditions are manifold. Let’s take flowers. During the period, floriography, or the expression of feelings through different blooms, was popular. But it required, we imagine, extensive knowledge of botany. Luckily, red roses signified romance, and that’s something that we’ve held onto. Hence the importance of red roses on February 14.
Business is booming
Of course, the increasing popularity of Valentine’s Day has turned it into a booming business all around the world. As we mentioned earlier, billions are spent each year on related gifts, feeding the perception of a Hallmark holiday. And while there’s a decent argument to be made for it existing purely as a commercial enterprise, celebrating can have benefits.
Believe it or not, exchanging gifts or going out with your partner on Valentine’s Day is good for your relationship. According to a report in the Personality and Individual Differences journal, partaking in festivities leads to an “enhanced perception of relationship function.” The effects of the holiday aren't only psychological, either.
Apparently, if a woman is heavily pregnant around mid-February, she is more likely to give birth on Valentine’s Day. The power of suggestion, perhaps? Maybe, but other experts claim that literally feeling the love that day can send signals to the body that it’s time to give birth.
For the love of money
It could be said that Valentine’s Day celebrations might have gotten somewhat out of control. For instance, gift giving for this holiday now encompasses everything from underwear built for two and personalized gin to heart-shaped cheese. What any of this has to do with romance is anyone’s guess! The holiday has also become less about the saintlike activities of Saint Valentine or about romantic love; instead, it's all about money.
Billions and billions of dollars
Clearly, the commercial sector does very well on Valentine’s Day. Over a billion cards are sent all over the planet to celebrate. But it’s not just postal missives that we’re splashing out on. In 2011 some $18.6 billion was spent globally on the holiday, with men spending almost twice as much as women. And the astonishing stats don’t end there.
As part of that enormous amount of money, about $1 billion was spent on candy alone. And three-fourths of it went to chocolate, a Valentine’s Day staple. In addition to indulgent cocoa-based treats, candy hearts weighing in total of over 100,000 pounds were bought for the big day. So what about the rest of that $18 billion?
A few engagement rings, no doubt
Well, a third of those celebrating went to a show or restaurant on Valentine’s Day, equating to around $6 billion. And more than $4 billion went to jewelry such as necklaces, and, we’re sure, a few engagement rings. As for the most traditional of gifts — flowers — almost $2 billion was spent.
Thanks, Saint Valentine!
So, when you’re eating your chocolates, smelling your roses, and generally reveling in February 14 joyousness, spare a thought for Saint Valentine. He died, painfully, for bringing people together in love, and he inadvertently helped squash the idea that being slapped by animal skin had any bearing on fertility. And if that's not love, what is?