A Brief History of Valentine's Day

In the ancient Roman calendar, February was a month of spring. Every February 15th, the Romans observed the festival of Lupercalia. It is most likely that this was a festival for Lupercus, the protector of flocks from the wolves which teemed in the wilderness surrounding the ancient city. It was a purification and a fertility festival. A dog and a goat would be sacrificed by two naked young men on Palatine Hill, the blood of the animals smeared on their foreheads and then wiped away with wool dipped in milk. The young men would then dress in loincloths made from the goat’s hide and run around the boundary of the city, leading groups of priests. They carried strips of goat hide and lightly struck women with them along their way around the city. Women believed this would enhance their fertility in the coming year. This act of “choosing” later became a lottery, where young Roman men would draw the name of a young woman from a box, and she would become his “love” for the rest of the festival.

As Christianity rose in power and stature, with a desire to eliminate the old pagan celebrations, new festivals and holidays were substituted on the same days. In 496 AD, Pope Gelasius banned the festival of Lupercalia and decreed that Saint Valentine be honored instead, on the fourteenth of the same month. A lottery of saints was instituted, and a celebrant would pull from a box the name of a saint whom he would then study and try to emulate for the next year.

There are at least three early Christian martyrs who are believed to be the basis for the modern St. Valentine. One of these was a priest who lived under the rule of Emperor Claudius II. Claudius, in an attempt to force young men to go into battle for his expansion of the Roman empire, banned all marriages and forced all engaged couples to break off their wedding plans. Valentine, who disagreed with the emperor, secretly married couples who came to his temple, until he was discovered and imprisoned. He eventually died in prison and was, legend says, buried by his supporters in the church of St. Praxides on February 14th.

Though the church continued to encourage the saints’ lottery on Valentine’s Day, by the 15th century, the tradition returned to a lottery which joined eligible young couples. In medieval England, where the tradition had traveled via the Romans, names of both men and women were placed in a box and drawn out in pairs. The man would wear his lady’s name on his sleeve and he was bound to protect her for the next year. It was also thought that birds chose their mates each year on February 14th.

Sometime in the 17th century, the modern-day Valentine card began to replace the anonymous slips of paper in the lottery boxes. Cards were made by hand, and were often very elaborate. Pre-made cards were too expensive for most to afford until the Victorian era, when postal rates as well as printing costs became affordable.

American Esther Howland is credited with repopularizing the greeting card in the 1840s. Inspired by a British valentine card she had received, she made the first mass-produced valentines from embossed paper lace. As with so many things American, the practice of exchanging cards expanded in the latter half of the 20th century to include the exchange of gifts, particularly chocolates, flowers and jewelry (the diamond industry began to promote jewelry as Valentine’s Day gifts in the 1980s).


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