Valentine’s Day is the day of love. On February 14, more than any other day of the year, romantic couples shower their better half with gifts and tokens of appreciation.
Much about Valentine’s Day is well known. The handwritten cards, chocolate hearts, and red roses are all staples of the annual tradition, recognized easily at any convenience store.
However, much about how the holiday came to be remains a mystery, details lost to time and transformed as romantics retold history. Not only does this holiday have competing origin stories, but there are at least two different saints who might be its namesake. Here’s what we actually know about Valentine’s Day.
Why do we celebrate Valentine’s Day?
Was Valentine’s Day inspired by a party, an execution, or a poem? Historians aren’t sure.
The earliest possible origin story of Valentine’s Day is the pagan holiday Lupercalia. Occurring for centuries in the middle of February, the holiday celebrates fertility. Men would strip naked and sacrifice a goat and dog. Young boys would then take strips of hide from the sacrificed animals and use it to whip young women, to promote fertility.
Lupercalia was popular and one of the few pagan holidays still celebrated 150 years after Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire.
When Pope Gelasius came to power in the late fifth century he put an end to Lupercalia. Soon after, the Catholic church declared February 14 to be a day of feasts to celebrate the martyred Saint Valentine.
According to Noel Lenski, a historian at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Lupercalia was «clearly a very popular thing, even in an environment where the Christians are trying to close it down.» In an interview with NPR Lenski theorizes that the feast was meant to replace Lupercalia. «So there’s reason to think that the Christians might instead have said, okay, we’ll just call this a Christian festival,» he said.
How did it become a romantic holiday?
Apart from the name, these feasts share little resemblance to our modern, romantic notions of Valentine’s Day.
By some accounts, the true origin of Valentine’s Day didn’t come for another thousand years. Jack B. Oruch, a professor at the University of Kansas, argues that the poet Geoffrey Chaucer was the first person to link Valentine’s Day to romance in his poem The Parlement of Foules.
Oruch suggests that Chaucer might have linked Valentine’s Day to romance more or less by chance—Valentine’s Day is approximately the time when European birds start mating. Later poets, including Shakespeare, followed Chaucer’s lead and helped create the romantic connotations we have today.