What’s the history behind Valentine’s Day?

The true story is, well, it’s complicated

By Nicol Natale

Valentine’s Day has gotten a bad rap over the years. Sure, lots of couples still go out to dinner, exchange gifts, or trade sentimental cards on February 14 (which falls on a Sunday in 2021). But to be honest, it’s much cooler to make fun of V-Day. It’s been called a “Hallmark holiday” and “Singles Awareness Day.” And since 2010, thanks to fictional character Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation, perhaps even more excitement exists around Galentine’s Day.

You may be wondering, how did Valentine’s Day get started anyway? And when is it this year, so you can lock down that perfect-yet-not-totally-out-of-your-budget gift? Let’s start with the most pressing question—then we promise to get to the history lesson.

When is Valentine’s Day 2021?

In case you missed it earlier, Valentine’s Day is February 14, 2020. Yes, Valentine’s Day is always on the same day and it falls on a Sunday this year.

OK, so what’s the history of Valentine’s Day?

Honestly, no one is entirely certain. (Historians, get on that!) One theory has to do with the Christian figure St. Valentine. Way back in third century Rome, a priest named Valentine performed secret marriages to young lovers after Emperor Claudius II ordered men to stay single, thinking they made better solders as unattached fellas (psssh). Valentine was allegedly put to death for his actions, but his legacy lives on.

Others believe a bishop named St. Valentine of Terni is the man who inspired Valentine’s Day. He was also beheaded by Claudius II near Rome during his persecutions of Christians in 270 A.D. (Yikes, Claudius II won’t be getting a Valentine from me!)

Yet another legend says that a Roman prisoner called Valentine may have been martyred for attempting to help Christians escape the harsh conditions of prison. According to this theory, he sent the first valentine after falling in love with a girl who visited him behind bars. Afterward, he gained quite the reputation throughout the Middle Ages as a romantic hero.

Why is Valentine’s Day celebrated on February 14?

A pagan theory holds that the Christian church decided to honor St. Valentine’s feast day in February to “Christianize” the pagan celebration of Lupercalia, which was celebrated on February 15. The Roman fertility festival honored Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture. Romans would make animal sacrifices for fertility, and bachelors would choose Roman women to marry.

In the 5th century, Pope Gelasius declared February 14th as St. Valentine’s Day after outlawing Lupercalia as “un-Christian.” Word of the St. Valentine continued to spread throughout the Middle Ages in France and England. In 1375, English poet Geoffrey Chaucer became the first to record Valentine’s Day as a holiday of love, with his poem “Parliament of Foules.”

When did the tradition of exchanging Valentines start?

The oldest recorded written valentine dates back to a poem written by Charles, Duke of Orleans, in 1415. He wrote to wife while imprisoned in the Tower of London.

In the U.S., exchanging valentines is thought to have started in the 1700s, but in 1840, the tradition really took off with Massachusetts-based artist Esther A. Howland. Known as the “Mother of Valentine,” she made holiday-themed greeting cards with lace, ribbons, and colorful pictures.

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