Valentine’s Day: where did it come from?

February 13, 2016
lupercales image

Fiestas Lupercales © Andrea Camais 1602-1649 Original via Wikipedia / Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike license

With Valentine’s Day fast approaching, take a look at the little known history behind one of the UK’s most beloved holidays.

A fortunate few of us, or unfortunate depending on your view of the occasion, are currently gearing up towards the magical day of romance that is Valentine’s Day. However, before we go running off to spend copious amounts of cash on gifts and cards, very few of us stop to question what on earth Valentine’s Day actually is. Well, hopefully this article will help to shed some light on the subject.


Although Valentine’s Day is sometimes associated with Christianity, it has striking similarities with a pre-Christian Roman festival known as Lupercalia. Conducted annually on the 15th February, the festival was associated with the God Faunus: a half humanoid, half goat like entity who bestowed fertility. The festivities included the sacrifice of a dog or goat followed by a feast. Afterwards, (and this is where things get a bit weird) the young priests, bearing strips of skin from the sacrificed animals, took to the streets striking any woman who came near. A hit from one of these strips was supposed to render the woman fertile.

However, in 494BC the Catholic Church, under Pope Gelasius I, introduced ‘The Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary’ in Rome which, some argue, replaced and put an end to all the pagan, goatskin-whipping antics. Phew.


The day also became dedicated to the martyr St. Valentine. Allegedly, St. Valentine sent the first ‘valentine’s’ letter to his jailer’s daughter, having been imprisoned by Emperor Claudius II. His supposed crime is disputed: some say he performed marriages for young couples against the orders of Emperor Claudius II; a different story suggests that St. Valentine helped Christians to escape the harsh Roman prisons. However, both stories conclude with Valentine meeting an untimely end.


Saint Valentine baptising Saint Lucilla by Jacopo Bassano © Original Via Wikimedia / Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike license


Although known as a time of romantic courting, it wasn’t until the thirteenth century that Valentine’s Day became associated with love. Over time, the actual day of the celebration was moved to the 14th February. During the Middle Ages, this date was commonly believed to mark the beginning of the mating season for birds, adding to the day’s association with fertility, life and love. In the typically resilient British manner, it took the UK until the seventeenth century for Valentine’s Day to really take-off.


Vast improvements in printing technology during the nineteenth century saw printed cards start to replace handwritten letters. This practice was well suited to the period, as exposing one’s feelings was looked down upon in western society. Therefore, readymade cards were an easy way for someone to express their emotions whilst avoiding oversentimentality – romantic, right?


Following the rise of an increasingly consumerist society and an explosion in global population throughout the twentieth century, we finally arrive at the huge industry that Valentine’s Day has become today. According to, an estimated one billion Valentine’s Day cards are sent every year, approximately 85% of which are sent by women.

So next time you’re giving your significant other a Valentine’s treat, think about the animal sacrifices, skin whippings, imprisoned felons and emotionally disconnected Victorians who made and shaped this truly happy day of love.

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