The History of Valentine's Day, and Why We Celebrate

Valentine’s Day may be associated with romance, but the origin of the holiday isn’t exactly romantic. Here’s the history of Valentine’s Day you may not know—plus when Valentine’s Day 2023 is so you can plan.

Whether you love Valentine's Day or hate it, one thing's clear: Valentine's Day history goes way back. And while Valentine's Day is now known for kissing, Valentine's Day gifts, and hard-to-get dinner reservations, the origins of the holiday are far less romantic. Here, the Valentine's Day history that wouldn't make it into a rom-com, featuring a saint, a massacre, and even the sinful nuns of Valentine's Day (seriously!).

Seamless pattern of Red Hearts on a Pink Background. The background of Valentine's day. Handmade work.
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When is Valentine’s Day?

First, a quick refresher: Valentine's Day always falls on February 14. Valentine's Day 2024 will be Wednesday, February 14.

At the end of the 5th century, Pope Gelasius declared February 14 St. Valentine's Day, and since then, February 14th has been a day of celebration—though it was generally more religious than romantic.

How did Valentine’s Day start?

Valentine's Day is a fixed day on the calendar that got lumped into a mid-February holiday on the ancient Roman calendar called Lupercalia—which some historians believe is what led to Valentine's Day being all about love. Lupercalia celebrated fertility, and may have included a ritual in which men and women were paired off by choosing names from a jar. In Ancient Greece, people observed a mid-winter celebration for the marriage of the god Zeus and the goddess Hera.

Why is Valentine's Day celebrated on February 14th?

In general, early Christians often opted to celebrate holidays on days that coincide with existing festivals and celebrations (like Christmas and winter solstice), so they placed Valentine's Day on February 14th, while Lupercalia was celebrated on February 15th.

Who was Saint Valentine? (And what does he have to do with chocolate hearts?)

Not much, it turns out. St. Valentine's Day was a feast day in the Catholic religion, added to the liturgical calendar around 500 AD. The day was commemorated for martyred saints named—you guessed it—Valentine. Differing legends celebrate three different saints called Valentine or Valentinus, but since very little was known about these men and there were conflicting reports of the St. Valentine Day story, the feast day was removed from the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar in 1969.

But even though not much is known about the real history of the Saint Valentines on whom the holiday is based, the legend of Saint Valentine has several tellings. One legend says that Saint Valentine refused to convert to paganism and was executed by Roman Emperor Claudius II. Prior to his execution, he was able to miraculously heal the daughter of his jailer, who then converted to Christianity along with his family. Another legend says a bishop called Saint Valentine of Terni is the true namesake of the holiday; this Saint Valentine was also executed.

But according to others—and this is how Saint Valentine became affiliated with a love-focused holiday—Saint Valentine was a Roman priest who performed weddings for soldiers forbidden to marry, because of a Roman emperor's edict decreeing married soldiers did not make good warriors and thus young men could not marry. This Saint Valentine wore a ring with a Cupid on it—a symbol of love—that helped soldiers recognize him. And, in a precursor to greeting cards, he handed out paper hearts to remind Christians of their love for God.

Because of this legend, Saint Valentine became known as the patron saint of love. The Saint Valentine prayer asks Saint Valentine to connect lovers together, so that two become one, and the couple remembers their devotion to God.

While the Saint Valentine story set the groundwork for establishing the day as a holiday for romantic love, what truly solidified the connection between Saint Valentine and love was a poem by medieval author Geoffrey Chaucer in 1375, which historians consider the origin of the "modern" celebration of Valentine's Day, where we celebrate our romantic partnership with one other person.

Why do we celebrate Valentine’s Day?

Chaucer lived in the Middle Ages, the era of courtly love, when broad, romantic statements of devotion—poems, songs, paintings—celebrated partnership. By the end of the 15th century, the word "valentine" was being used to describe a lover in poems and songs of the day, and in the 18th century, a book called The Young Man's Valentine Writer was published in England. By the mid-19th century, mass-produced paper Valentine's Cards were being created (though DIY Valentine card ideas are still worth trying), and Valentine's Day as we know it was born.

Valentine's Day history, origin, story, and more - Vintage Valentine's Day card
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The truth about Valentine's Day history is that the romantic holiday isn't immune to tragedy. During Prohibition in Chicago, seven men were killed by a gang organized by Al Capone on Feb. 14, 1929. The Valentine's Day Massacre became a flashpoint in Prohibition history, with police and lawmakers going after the gangs and mobs that had formed in cities to control then-illegal substances like alcohol.

What is Galentine's Day, and how is it related to Valentine's Day?

A modern (and fun!) take on Valentine's Day, Galentine's Day seems to have been popularized by Amy Poehler's character Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation. It's a day to celebrate the friends that you love. It's celebrated on February 13 (leaving you plenty of time to celebrate your mate on official Valentine's Day the following day). Galentine's Day gifts have become a nice way to celebrate the people who mean so much to you.

Is Valentine's Day a holiday?

While many people celebrate Valentine's Day in all kinds of different ways, it's no longer an official Catholic holiday—and unfortunately for all the romantics out there, it's not an official bank holiday or day off (though you can always take the day off for a special day with your significant other!).

What is the meaning of Valentine’s Day?

Over the years (and centuries), Valentine's Day has been a religious celebration, an ancient ritual day, and a commercial holiday. All that change means the meaning of Valentine's Day is truly whatever you want it to be: You can skip the celebrations completely, buy yourself some chocolate or flowers, or express your love and appreciation for the people in your life, whether they're co-workers, romantic partners, friends, or family members.

What are some fun things to do for Valentine's Day?

You can celebrate the day of love however you want—even if it's just through self-love. Some ideas that could inspire you:

• Plan a nice dinner out

• Watch a romantic movie (at the theater or cozy at home)

• Cook up a fancy romantic meal at home (or just a great Valentine's Day dessert)

• Host a Valentine's Day party

• Do some fun Valentine's crafts with your family

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