What is the origin of Valentine’s Day?

It all has to do with goat strips and Popes. You know, the usual.

Valentine's Day
Valentine's Day / Heritage Images/GettyImages

Today, as you are probably aware, is February 14, aka Valentine’s Day, aka the most romantic day of the year. You might also be aware that along with the romance, this day was named after St. Valentine, so clearly there’s some religious significance to the day, as well. Right?

Well… Not exactly. Or at least, not the religious significance you might think. Because the origins of Valentine’s Day stretch far back before Christianity, and pretty much every reason for the season comes from a convoluted, heady mix of pagan rituals, multiple dudes named “Valentine” and several other similar names.

Appropriately, it’s like several different paths of history all professed their love for each other, coupled up, and gave birth to the holiday we now call Valentine’s Day.

So that preamble out of the way, let’s get into what we can suss out about the origin of Valentine’s Day.

Valentine’s Day begins: Pagan origins

The most likely origin of Valentine’s Day – or at least the reason it takes place on February 14 – is because of the feast of Lupercalia, which was celebrated by the Romans between February 13 and 15. [Side note: at the time, they would have called the month “Februarius.”] The feast was in honor of Pan and Juno, and celebrated… Well, actually reports differ about what it celebrated. Some say fertility and purification. Others downplay the fertility aspect.

We do know that as part of the feast, priests would head to a cave they believed was once the home of Remus and Romulus, the founders of Rome who were raised by a she-wolf. In the cave, they would kill a goat (for fertility) and a dog (for prosperity), and then strip off the goat’s hide. They would then wander the street lightly slapping both women and crops with the goat hide strips.

And that’s how we got Valentine’s Day! The end.

Just kidding, I don’t think that still happens today. However, what the goat hide strips would do is convey fertility to the women. And the crops. Then, throughout the three days of the festival, those women would couple off with men thanks to a matchmaking lottery where their names were put on a little ball and into a jar, and a man would pick their ball out. Just like Tinder!

Sometimes these new couples would just get naked, drunk and… You know. But also sometimes they would get married and spend the rest of their very long 35-40 years together.

The dark Valentine’s Day: Dawn of Valentine’s Day

Valentine / Heritage Images/GettyImages

So why is it called Valentine’s Day? This may be because of any number of future saints. There were actually two entirely different guys named Valentine, both of whom were killed by Emperor Claudius II. The first was a third-century priest who battled against Claudius’s decree that no young men should be married because it would distract them from military service. Valentine married these men in secret (unknown whether a jar of marbles was involved) and was subsequently killed for his defiance.

The other one was [checks notes] a third-century priest named Saint Valentine of Terni, who was beheaded for the much less romantic reason of trying to get Claudius to convert to Christianity. It didn’t work, by the way, but as you’ll see in a second there’s a reason this second Valentine gets more credited for the holiday than the other one.

Further confusing things? Though this may be legend like everything else, both Valentines were executed on February 14.

The Valentine’s Day rises: Valentine v. Galatin

Around the fifth century, a couple of things were happening simultaneously. Or, as simultaneous as you can get with broad swathes of history. First, there was the Norman holiday of Galatin’s Day, which was celebrated… Well, I couldn’t find any specific info about how that was celebrated, but several sources note that Galatin means “lover of women.” So presumably loving women in some fashion.

This is also not to be confused with the modern celebration of Galentine’s Day, which is when you celebrate with your gal-friends, but also feel free to confuse it because we’re already all over the place here.

Meanwhile, Pope Gelasius I did what Popes always do: attempted to absolutely obliterate a pagan holiday by turning it into a Christian holiday. In this case, he took St. Valentine’s Day, which celebrated either one or both of the above Valentines, and then programmed it at the same time as Lupercalia in order to tamp down on drunken, naked revelry. This is when Valentine’s Day officially came to be celebrated on February 14.

It was only mildly successful: he managed to cut out most of the nudity but lost out when it came to the rest. And while the goat hide thing thankfully fell out of favor, the day slowly developed a reputation as a day of romance. In France and England, people believed birds started mating on February 14. And in 1375, Chaucer mentioned “Seynt Valentyne’s day” in a romantic poem.

But what about Valentine’s cards? The first written record of a Valentine’s Day letter was from 1415, sent from Charles, Duke of Orleans to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London.

It’s possible it goes back even further. Legend says the second Saint Valentine had restored the sight of a girl who was the daughter of a man named Asterius. He sent a letter to Asterius’s daughter right before his execution signed “from your Valentine,” which gave rise to the modern “mystery Valentine” letter. In this case, it probably wasn’t that mysterious like that would be today, because she knew the guy who restored her sight was named Valentine.

So there you go! Valentine’s Day started as a pagan tradition, was coopted by the church, and then brought essentially back to its pagan origins in the modern day. Thankfully minus the goat strips.

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