Like many of our traditional holidays, Valentine’s Day has origins that don’t really have much to do with the love and joy that we associate with it today. Its origins don’t have much to do with the cute SpongeBob SquarePants cards you send to school with your second grader!

Lupercalia

In ancient Rome from February 13-15, the citizens engaged in a rite that was intended to increase fertility. Although the link between Lupercalia and our modern Valentine’s Day is disputed, during these two days, available men and women would be matched and animal sacrifices would be made to guarantee that the union of the participants would be fruitful.

Valentine and Valentine (and Valentine?)

This history of Valentine’s Day actually gets its name from two early Christian martyrs. The history of the church itself is littered with the struggles of many. Valentine of Rome, whose skull currently resides in the Basilica of Santa Maria, is a saint now, but back in the day he was a Catholic priest who didn’t back down from Roman authorities. Valentine of Terni was a bishop in the church. These two brave men were executed for their beliefs and have been recognized by the Catholic Church as martyrs and have been canonized as saints.

Another, St. Valentine of Zdravko, was the Slovenian saint of spring, although his special day was traditionally in March.

Chaucer and Valentine’s Day

Though it originally referred to a date in May, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules, which was written in 1382, was a love poem for the king, Richard II, and his new wife. The monarch was getting married to Anne of Bohemia and Chaucer capitalized on the events by writing “For this was on sent Volantynys day / Whan euery byrd comyth there to chese his make.” He was referencing spring as a time of love and romance and was the first to connect the saints with the holiday in the history of Valentine’s Day.

Modern Valentine’s Day

It wasn’t until the 1800’s that Valentine’s Day started to look the way we know it now. Victorian couples would send handmade “Valentine’s” to their sweeties. These vaguely resembled the cards that we give these days. The cards became commercial in the early 1900’s when a lady named Esther Howland started mass producing them for couples and sweethearts. By the 1980’s folks were giving cards, chocolates and jewelry to their sweethearts as gifts of love.

It is amazing that the history of Valentine’s Day has evolved from ancient Roman rites to today’s festive holiday of love. These days, as many as 200 million Valentine’s Day cards are sent each year, not to mention dinner dates at fancy restaurants, boxes of chocolaty goodness and, yes, those sparkling diamonds that women are great friends with.