History of Valentine’s Day

‘Tis the season for kids to pick out Valentine’s for classmates, bake sweets for school and make cards. With Valentine’s Day upon us, it’s interesting to think of how the holiday began — and, spoiler, it’s a bit darker than the chocolate-and-flower-version celebrated today.

The muddled origin comes with different interpretations conceived around the world, but the oldest source comes from Ancient Roman times and it’s not romantic.

Feb. 13–15, ancient Roman pagans celebrated Lupercalia, or Luperci, a festival of fertility consisting of animal sacrifice and hitting on women — literally. After the animal sacrifice, women would line up while men hit them with the hides of the sacrificed animal for fertility and good health.

Eventually, men would choose a woman’s name out of a jar and the couple would be paired off for the year. Sometimes couplings dissolved before the year’s end but typically they ended in marriage.

There are a few theories as to how the brutal Roman tradition transitioned into Valentine’s Day, beginning with Saint Valentine himself. The Catholic Church has several different saints named Valentine, but one in particular stands out as the namesake of the holiday.

couple with roses

© Pavel Yavnik | Dreamstime.com

During the third century, Valentine served as a priest and would marry young couples in secret, as it was illegal for young men to marry because Emperor Claudius II believed single men made better soldiers. When Valentine was discovered, he was executed and canonized.

By the fifth century, Pope Gelasius declared Feb. 14 St. Valentine’s Day —coinciding with the saint’s death — to make the pagan celebration of Luperci a bit more Christian.

Over time, the holiday became more romantic with couples exchanging poems, letters and tokens of affection and, by the Middle Ages, it was customary to exchange homemade cards.

Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare’s more famous literary works popularized the affectionate angle of Valentine’s Day and the holiday continued to grow. By the 1900s, Hallmark got involved and the rest is history.

Give the older kids a quick history lesson or let them live out the golden years of the holiday.