Updated February 14, 2022 at 7:49 AM ET
Valentine’s Day is a time to celebrate romance, love and fidelity to a kiss. But the origins of this candy and cupid festival are actually dark, bloody – and a bit confusing.
Although no one has determined the exact origin of the holiday, one can start with Ancient Rome.
The celebrations of the Romans were tumultuous
From 13 to 15 February, the Romans celebrated the feast of Lupercalia. The men sacrificed a goat and a dog, then beat the women with whips with the skins of freshly slaughtered animals.
Roman romantics “were drunk. They were naked, ”Noel Lenski, now a professor of religious studies at Eli, told NPR in 2011. Young women actually lined up for men to beat them, Lensky said. They believed it would make them fertile.
The harsh celebration included a matchmaking lottery in which young men pulled out the names of women from a bank. Then the couple would be connected for the duration of the festival – or longer if the match was right.
The ancient Romans may also be responsible for the name of our modern day of love. Emperor Claudius II executed two men – both named Valentine – on February 14 of different years in the 3rd century AD. Their martyrdom was honored by the Catholic Church in celebration of Valentine’s Day.
As the holiday spread, it evolved
Later, Pope Gelasius I confused things in the 5th century, combining Valentine’s Day with Lupercalia to banish pagan rituals. But the festival was more of a theatrical interpretation of what it once was. Lenski added: “It was a little more drunken revelry, but the Christians returned the clothes. It did not stop him from becoming a day of fertility and love.
Around the same time, the Normans celebrated Galatian Day. Galatin meant “love of women”. Probably at some point it was confused with Valentine’s Day, in part because they sound the same.
As the years went by, the holiday became sweeter and sweeter. Chaucer and Shakespeare romanticized him in their work, and he gained popularity throughout Britain and the rest of Europe. Handmade paper postcards became du-jury signs in the Middle Ages.
Eventually the tradition made its way into the New World. The Industrial Revolution marked the beginning of factory card making in the 19th century. And in 1913, Hallmark Cards of Kansas City, Missouri, began mass production of valentines. Since then, February has not been the same.
As we celebrate now
Today is a big deal. But this commercialization has ruined the day for many. Helen Fisher, a sociologist at Rutgers University, says we blame only ourselves.
“It’s not a team performance,” she said. “If people didn’t want to buy Hallmark cards, they wouldn’t buy them, and Hallmark would stop.”
And so the celebration of Valentine’s Day is different. Many will break the bank by buying jewelry and flowers for their loved ones. Some will celebrate like this (it’s the only day of awareness) by dining alone and drinking chocolate candies, while others find a way to come to terms with loneliness in a society that wants everyone to be a partner.