Pre-Roman Period (historical accounts dating back to 44 B.C.)
Valentine’s Day has roots in the Roman fertility festival Lupercalia. This Pagan celebration lacked the flowers, candies, and cards that we are familiar with today. Instead the event — celebrated on the ides of February — would begin with ritualistic animal sacrifice, followed by childless women being whipped with throngs of animal skin to increase fertility, and end with an arranged mating raffle.
It’s a hotly contested topic among historians which Saint Valentine inspired the holiday’s name. You see, there were three different saints recognized by the Catholic church with the name Valentine or Valentinus, and all three of them were martyred during the third century. Whether conducting secret marriages, performing nuptial blessings, or signing the first Valentine “From your Valentine,” each has a claim to the foundation of the holiday we know today.
Declaration of Holiday
Pope Gelasius declared Feb. 14 Saint Valentine’s Day in 496. This designation, some believe, was an attempt to “Christianize” the Pagan festival Lupercalia. Some festival practices were initially co-opted — such as the practice of holding a massive feast — but others were omitted — i.e. the sacrificial offerings. The holiday would not become romantic until the 14th century.
First Record of Valentine’s Day Associated with Romance
Poet Geoffrey Chaucer authored the first-known artifact linking Valentine’s Day with romance, in his piece “Parliament of Foules.” He wrote, “For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day, Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.” This connection quickly took root, and more and more evidence of the correlation between Valentine’s Day and lovers was documented throughout Europe and eventually across the globe.
Valentine’s Card Popularized
Initially, Valentines were exclusively hand-written letters between lovers. In the 1840s, Esther A. Howland, known as the “Mother of the Valentine,” initiated the trend of widely producing Valentine’s cards in the U.S. She created elaborate cards with lace, ribbon, and heartfelt messages, which were quickly reproduced in massive quantities after the industrial revolution. Today, with modern printmaking technology and the dramatic popularization of the Valentine’s Day card, an estimated 145 million cards are sent each year.
Valentine’s Day Today
What began as a fertility festival is now a massive, consumer-driven holiday. The National Retail Federation reported an all-time-high of $20.7 billion total spending for 2019, meaning the average person spent about $161.96 on gifts and date nights. Candy, flowers, and jewelry are the most popular gifts. Engagement rings are also increasingly common, as Valentine’s Day is a widely popular day for marriage proposals — second only to Christmas.