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Valentine’s Day: from Christian martyrs to chocolate

Valentine’s Day is one of the most celebrated, yet least understood holidays in the Western World. It’s also quite popular in countries like India and Iran, where its celebration could still land you in jail or a painful beating from Morality Police with sticks or Hindu nationalists.

Today, it’s known for expressing your love or affection for another. That could be your spouse, signficant other, grandchild or parent.

The history of the holiday begins in ancient Rome with the execution on Feb. 14 of a Christian named Valentinus known today as St. Valentine.  Many historians have pieced together points in history to tell the story from surviving records from the Roman period.

So how did Valentine’s Day originate? Here are answers to some common questions about the origins of Valentine’s Day:

Where Does the Word ‘Valentine’ Come From?

Valentine’s Day is named after Saint Valentine of Rome, a beloved martyr who was executed on February 14th in the 3rd century A.D. However, there were actually several Christians named Valentine who were executed during the reign of Roman Emperor Claudius Gothicus. During a time when Christians were murdered, including being burned at the stake to illuminate the streets of Rome like lampposts,  the execution of religious advocates known as martyrs grew.

The stories of religious heroism by this Christian named Valentine were later honored by the Catholic Church with the celebration of Saint Valentine’s Day.

Who Is St. Valentine Really?

The two most famous St. Valentines were a Roman Christian and early bishop of the growing Christain movement. The priest named Valentinus was arrested for his beliefs and put into custody. Valentinus made a bargain with the man who was guarding him, that if he could cure his foster-daughter of blindness he would convert to Christianity from Roman paganism. Valentinus miraculously healed the girl and the guard and his whole family accepted Christ as their savior. When the emperor heard the news, he ordered the entire family executed.

The second Valentinus got into a similar situation; he debated with a potential convert and ended up healing the man’s son. The same emperor Gothicus executed him as well as the man he converted. Some believe these men are two interpretations of the same story, however, no one knows who the original St. Valentine was.

As time went on the story of these martyrs was passed down and developed into a Christian celebration of their death. The Catholic Church later established St. Valentine’s Day to honor these martyrs.

The First Valentine

In medieval legends and what is often portrayed in modern media, St. Valentine was secretly marrying couples to protect young men from going to war. Other stories say that St. Valentine fell in love with the blind girl he had healed and that he wrote her the first “valentine” while in prison – a letter which he allegedly signed “From your Valentine,” an expression that is still in use today. However, there is no historical evidence backing these stories.


The Christian church may have placed St. Valentine’s feast day in the middle of February in order to compete with pagan fertility celebration of Lupercalia.

valentine's day


Lupercalia was originally a sacred gathering of pagan Roman priests that went on from February 13th to the 15th. The pagan ritual included sacrificing a dog and a goat and walking through the streets covering women with the hide for what they believed promoted fertility. An equally strange part of the festival was the tradition of women placing their names into an urn for bachelors to pick from. The woman’s name they drew would be their sexual match for the duration of the festival, and often paired couples would marry.

How Was Valentine’s Day First Celebrated?

After the Roman emperor Constantine and the empire converted to Christianity, Lupercalia was eventually outlawed. However, at the end of the 5th century, Pope Gelantis declared February 14th as “the feast of St. Valentine,” ridding the day of the unruly festival. Whether this action was to cover up Lupercalia or to honor the religious heroism of St. Valentine is argued by historians to this day.

The History of Love on Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day’s first official reference to romance finally appeared more than a thousand years after the martyr’s death when Geoffrey Chaucer, a medieval poet, decreed the February feast of St. Valentinus to be related to the mating of birds. English birds mated in February and soon after Chaucer’s reference in his “Parliament of Foules,” European nobility began sending love notes during bird-mating season. Shortly after, Shakespeare’s lovelorn damsel, Ophelia, called herself Hamlet’s Valentine. Chaucer and Shakespeare’s romanticism of the holiday in their work soon began its gain of popularity in Britain and the rest of Europe. In 1415, Charles Duke of Orleans wrote to his wife while imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt. Even King Henry V hired a writer to compose a valentine’s note to Catherine of Valois, leading love-letter writing to be associated with the day.

What Is the Meaning of Valentine’s Day Today?

So, how did we get around to celebrating Valentine’s day with flowers, chocolates and love notes when it started from such a dark place of Christian persecution?

As we’ve discussed, for thousands of years the middle of February was commonly known for fertility festival celebrations, so it is no wonder that romance is associated with the holiday. Whether or not Chaucer and Shakespeare can be fully credited, there’s no doubt they popularized the current associations surrounding the day.

Notes, Gifts and Chocolates, Oh My!

In the 17th century, it became common for friends and lovers to exchange small gifts and handwritten notes in Great Britain. Eventually, the tradition made its way to the American colonies and during the 19th century, along with the Industrial Revolution came factory-made Valentine’s Day cards. Cheaper postage rates contributed to the increase in popularity of sending Valentine’s Day greetings and Esther A. Howland pioneered mass-producing the first valentines made with lace, ribbons and colorful images. She soon became known as “Mother Valentine.” Enter Hallmark Cards and the rest is history!

The first box of chocolate was created by Richard Cadbury, who started packaging chocolates in fancy boxes in attempts to increase sales. He created the first heart-shaped box of chocolates in 1861 and today more than 36 million heart-shaped boxes of chocolates are sold each year. The first candy hearts were also made by Boston pharmacist Oliver Chase as medical lozenges used for sore throats. Terms like “Happy Valentine’s Day” and “Sweetheart” were not written on the candies till much later.

Where Did the Flowers Come From?

Since fertility was also associated with agriculture, Valentine’s Day flowers naturally became a gift of choice. For centuries, flowers have symbolized fertility, love, marriage, and romance. The history of giving your loved one Valentine’s Day flowers comes from the old-fashioned custom of sending floral bouquets to pass on non-verbal messages. Charles II of Sweden is credited with introducing the “Persian language of flowers” tradition to Europe by sending the first Valentine’s bouquet, using each flower to convey a specific meaning, making it possible to have an entire conversation without words.

Red and white roses are by far the most popular Valentine’s Day flower arrangements, with red representing “romance, love, beauty, and courage” and white representing “purity, loyalty, and innocence.” A thornless red rose can mean “love at first sight.” Other colors of roses can be used to indicate friendship (yellow), appreciation (peach), enchantment (lavender), or sweetness and grace (pink).

Statistics show that over 80% of Valentine’s Day gifts include roses, and that nearly a third of all American adults will purchase either Valentine’s plants or flowers as a gift.

Valentine’s Day Facts & FAQs

According to the U.S. Greeting Card Association, approximately one billion Valentine’s Day cards are sent each year worldwide, making it the second-largest card-sending holiday. Take a peek below for a few fun Valentine’s day facts and frequently asked questions about the history of Valentine’s Day!


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