The Origins of Saint Valentine’s Day

February 14 has long been a date associated with fertility and marriage but not always with love and romance; at least not in the sense that most of us understand these concepts today.

Valentine’s Day has its origins in the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia which was celebrated from February 13-15. During this time young men would strip naked and run through the streets using strips of goat skin to lightly lash the buttocks of young women to remove curses and ensure fertility and easy child birth. There was also a “Lover’s Lottery” wherein the names of available young women were placed in a box to be drawn by young men. Once a name was drawn the couple was committed; at least for the duration of the festival.

In 496 C.E., Pope Gelasius and the Catholic Church decided to claim February 14 as a Christian feast day in order to eradicate the still popular pagan festival. The Church dedicated the date to St. Valentine and created the backstory that Valentine was a Catholic bishop who was martyred for performing marriages for Roman soldiers after Emperor Claudius had banned marriage for young men on the grounds that married men made weak warriors.

Many centuries later, in the 18th century, it became popular for young Englishmen to give handmade cards of paper and lace to the objects of their affection. By the mid 19th century mass production techniques, an improved postal service and cheap paper lace made the custom of sending Valentine cards popular in the U.S. as well.

In 1913 Hallmark entered the arena and changed the holiday forever. What started out as a slightly sadistic Roman fertility rite is now an obligatory date on which to profess undying love while sending candy, flowers and jewelry in addition to cards. Valentine’s Day now generates $14.7 billion dollars in retail sales in the U.S. and is the second most card-laden celebration after Christmas as well as one of the most popular days for marriage proposals.