The History of Valentine’s Day

By Jacqueline G. Goodwin, Ed.D.

According to historians, Valentine’s Day is a successor of the ancient Roman feast of Lupercalia dating back to 300 BC. Every year between February 13 and February 15, the Romans engaged in celebrations and rituals to honor the coming of spring. One of these rituals involved sacrificing a dog or a goat and using its skin to gently slap women, an act that was believed to increase their fertility. 

In addition, Lupercalia debuted the ancient version of a blind date: men’s and women’s names were drawn via a lottery and randomly matched to spend the holiday together. If they fancied each other at the end of the feast, they would marry soon after. 

In the 5th century A.D., Pope Gelasius I decided to expel the pagan holiday and replace it with a day for the celebration of a martyr called Valentine, who was executed by Emperor Claudius II.

There are different legends about who St. Valentine was. One tells the story of a Christian priest who was imprisoned and fell in love with his jailer’s daughter. Before his death, he signed a love letter to her with the words “From your Valentine.” 

Another legend tells about a priest who ignored Emperor Claudius II’s ban on marriage for young men in his army. The priest continued to marry couples who were in love for which he was eventually executed.

The man famous for sending the first Valentine’s Day card was Charles, Duke of Orleans. In 1415, while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London, he sent a poem titled Farewell to Love to his 16-year-old wife Bonne of Armagnac. 

Bonne was Charles’ second of three wives. The first one he married when he was 12 and she was 17. His third wife was 14 at the time of marriage and Charles was 46, after having spent 25 years in prison. Charles also liked poetry. He would eventually produce more than 500 poems during his life; but then, he had a lot of time in prison to do so.  

The first mention of Valentine’s Day as a day celebrating romantic love is thought to have come from Geoffrey Chaucer in 1375 with a line from the poem Parliament of Foules

“For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day / Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.”

Shakespeare also popularized Valentine’s Day with his works and contributed to its transformation into a holiday of matchmaking and gift-giving.  

During the 17th and 18th centuries, the holiday began resembling its modern consumer-oriented manifestation. While the common folk exchanged cards and turned to prophecies to reveal their future romantic partners, the aristocracy engaged in more sophisticated activities. 

In the European courts, where elaborate displays of fashion and style were already common, the holiday was celebrated by gifting expensive presents to selected people called “Valentines.” 

What helped St. Valentine’s Day take root across the ocean in the United States was the nation’s emerging consumer and popular culture, boosted by the influence of advertising and the following developments in printing and mass production.

The meaning of “valentine” transformed from signifying a person to referring to an object of exchange. Esther A. Howland is thought to have popularized the ornate and elaborate creations associated with valentines when she started making and selling such cards in the 1840s. 

By 1900, it was a common practice for friends and lovers to exchange small tokens of affection or printed cards. Today, Valentine’s Day is the second-largest card-sending holiday, after Christmas. Over 145 million Valentine’s Day cards are exchanged throughout the world, and that doesn’t count the little cards children traditionally give each other in classrooms via shoebox and construction paper “mailboxes.”

In fact, U.S. consumer spending for Valentine’s Day 2021 is expected to be $27.4 billion. 

Yale sociologist Jefferey Alexander points out that rituals have always been an important part of human culture and can “help renew a flagging sense of solidarity.” Gift giving has also always been an important way to create peace and reciprocity. 

“I think gifts can be thought of as materializations of meanings and emotions, rather than as commercial or financial exchanges. Let’s take the idea of a heart, which was a symbol people used long before Valentine’s Day. The gifts we exchange on Valentine’s Day are supposed to symbolize the emotions that come out of the heart. Of course, today when everything is commodified, people feel there is a correlation between the emotion communicated in the gift and how much money you spend,” Alexander says.

According to Alexander, how we choose to celebrate Valentine’s Day is up to us. “Taking part in a collective ritual, however, has a positive effect on our feelings of belonging, and thanks to the commercialization of the holiday, there is a way for everyone to participate.”