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The Ancient Origins Of Valentine’s Day

Feb 9th, 2024

Love is in the air… at least on February 14th. But have you ever stopped to wonder how this day of heart-shaped boxes and overpriced roses came to be? Believe it or not, Valentine's Day's history is a far cry from the sanitized version we know today. It's a tale that weaves together forgotten pagan rituals, martyred saints and centuries of evolving traditions. So, ditch the candy hearts and grab a cozy drink, because we're about to dive into the real story of Valentine's Day.

Ancient Roman traditions behind Valentine’s Day

Folkloric origins of Valentine’s Day

Our journey begins not with candlelit dinners and love notes, but with a raucous ancient Roman festival called Lupercalia

Celebrated on February 15th, this ancient, bloody bash was far from the picture of romantic bliss it is today. As in, it involved animal sacrifice, theatrical performances, feasts, fighting and blood purification.

Part of this elaborate ceremony involved young men drawing names from a clay urn and pairing up with the named women for the duration of the festivities. Though the whole thing started out as a fertility and purification ritual, it did end up evolving into a lovers’ festival of sorts where the paired couple would offer each other gifts and treats over the course of the festival. 

Ultimately, the practice was designed to encourage love and romance between the young and fertile. So, basically, it was ancient singles’ night. Humanity doesn’t really change, huh?

Anyways, Lupercalia was a staple of ancient Roman society well into the first century A.D. when Roman armies began invading what is now Great Britain and France. As with most folkloric traditions back then, Lupercalia evolved region by region as the festival spread through Europe along with the Romans. It took hold quickly as many other regions also saw early-to-mid February as a time of fertility, as it marked the end of winter and the beginning of Spring.

Lupercalia and the arrival of Christianity

Christianity emerged in the 5th century A.D. and quickly put a religious twist on what it saw as a pagan festival (as had happened with Halloween). In 469 A.D., Pope Gelasius forbade the celebration of Lupercalia, and tradition holds that eventually the holiday was replaced with other love-themed traditions. What that looked like, we aren’t sure, but we know that by the 14th century, February 14 was being celebrated as Valentine’s Day.

Who was St. Valentine?

Now, there's some confusion here as to who St. Valentine was and what he did exactly, although all the versions were martyrs associated with the same date. 

One legend paints him as a third-century priest acting as a secret matchmaker, marrying couples forbidden by Roman law in the name of love. He was found out by the authorities and executed by Emperor Claudius II Gothicus on February 14 in 270 A.D., thus becoming a martyr for love and romance. 

Another legend tells the story of a prisoner named Valentine who was imprisoned for rescuing persecuted Christians. While in jail, he fell in love with the jailer’s blind daughter and converted both her and her father to Christianity, miraculously restoring the daughter's sight in the process. No good deed goes unpunished, however, and he was sentenced for execution on February 14, 270. On the morning of his execution, he slipped a romantic message to the jailer’s daughter, signed “From your Valentine.” 

Whatever the true story of Valentine may have been, we know that this figure was who Pope Gelasisu intended to honor on February 14 in 469 A.D., marking the beginning of the Valentine’s Day tradition. 

Evolution of Valentine’s Day

As time went on, the celebration of Valentine’s Day waned in France but grew stronger in Britain. For centuries after the Romans left England, young men would blindly draw names from a jar, and the woman’s name he drew would become his “Valentine” for the year. 

Today, the celebration of Valentine’s Day has come to include exchanging gifts and messages with family and friends, although the holiday is still largely a romantic one. Statistics from previous years show that in the United States, Americans spend an average of $190 per person on Valentine’s Day, adding up to a whopping $26 billion each year! Around 250 million roses are grown solely for the holiday, and $2.2 billion is spent on candy alone. 

Valentine’s Day symbols

There are several symbols and customs associated with Valentine’s Day, including the ones mentioned above. Not all of them were present when the holiday first emerged, but have rather been picked up along the way as the holiday evolved.


We can’t talk about Valentine’s Day without mentioning our little flying angel of love. In fact, what we think of Cupid today isn’t too far off what he started out as back in the ancient Roman times. 

Cupid is the Roman god of love and the son of the goddess of beauty and love, Venus. Unlike the mature form of love that his mother represented, he represented a tender, playful, fun kind of love, which he would import upon his victims by shooting them with invisible arrows. No one was safe from his aim, not even the gods!

Though he was originally depicted as a young, handsome man with a bow and quiver, he eventually morphed into a pudgy, baby-like angel — a transformation likely due to the Victorians who wanted a more family-friendly version of the hunter-like god. 


The term “lovebirds” also has its origins in folkloric fertility beliefs.

Medieval people believed that February 14 was the day that birds chose their mates, tying into celebrations of spring, Lupercalia and the Feast of Saint Valentine. In addition, the goddess Venus held doves to be sacred since they represented lifelong mates and innocent love. 

Valentine’s Day cards

The tradition of exchanging love tokens emerged around the 15th and 16th centuries. Handwritten verses and simple posies evolved into elaborate, decorated cards, often filled with sentimental rhymes and declarations of affection. By the late 1700s, these cards were being printed commercially by the Victorians, who mass-produced cards adorned with lace and ribbons, and who popularized the exchange of flowers and chocolates. These customs eventually crossed the Atlantic, taking root in American soil during the 18th century.

All in all

So, next time you clink glasses with your sweetheart over a candlelit dinner, remember the journey this holiday has taken. From raucous pagan rituals to whispers of love between jail bars, Valentine's Day has come a long way in the past two thousand years or so. And while the traditions may have changed, the core message remains: love, in all its messy, beautiful forms, is worth celebrating. 

So, whether you're showering your significant other with gifts or simply enjoying a quiet evening with loved ones, remember the spirit of Valentine's Day: a day to appreciate the connections that make life a little sweeter.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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Featured photo by Pin Adventure Map on Unsplash

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives on Oahu in Hawai'i. She loves to travel, camp, spearfish and hike. She's also part of a super cool canoe club and is pretty decent at it. Colleen enjoys Star Wars and also not being cold ever.

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