The Strange but True Story Behind Valentine's Day (2024)

While this is not your conventional story about Valentine’s Day that’s filled with romance, it’s a fascinating take on a tradition that is widely celebrated on February 14 in many countries around the world.

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Strange but true…

You are looking at the skull of an ancient Roman Martyr named Valentine which resides in the Rome, in the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. Whether or not it’s the skull of the martyr who inspired Valentine’s day is a matter of some debate, to put it mildly. Bound up in this debate is the unexpected history of one of the world’s most curious holidays.

The Strange but True Story Behind Valentine's Day (1)

Let’s start from the beginning…who was Saint Valentine?

The better question is ‘who were?’ Depending on who’s counting, there are between 12 and 14 Saint Valentines, including a Spanish hermit and a woman – Valentina. Turns out, it was a pretty common name during Late Antiquity. As far as anyone can tell, the Saint Valentine of Valentine’s Day was one of two guys preaching the good word in Rome in the third century. One of these two was martyred on February 14th 269, thus giving us the date for his eponymous day.

So what did this guy, er, guys, have to do with love and greeting cards, and overpriced restaurants?

Absolutely nothing. After he was killed, Valentine’s remains sat in the Catacombs of San Valentino for a while before moving to Santa Maria in Cosmedin (or the Basilica of Saint Valentine in Terni, if you support the claim of the other Valentine) where they were visited by pilgrims for many years. They probably would have remained venerated, but somewhat anonymous relics for the patron saint of beekeepers and people suffering from the plague had it not been for Chaucer.

What does an English medieval poet have to do with a Roman martyr?

As far as anyone can tell, this guy is the reason that people spend billions of dollars on cards, candies, and flowers every February 14th.

Geoffrey Chaucer has nothing to do with Roman martyrs but he has a lot to do with English literature and that’s how he created a connection between Saint Valentine and love celebrations. The first written connection between love and Valentine’s Day appears in his poem, Parlement of Foules, written in the late 14th century. He appears to have simply invented the correlation and chalked it up to poetic license, though it’s also possible that he was drawing from older courtly traditions.

So Valentine’s Day is basically a sham invented by a poet in order to make his lines rhyme?

A vintage example of a mass-produced valentine from America | Photo by Karen Horton via Flickr

Not exactly. Shortly after Chaucer mentioned love on Valentine’s Day, real-life lovers began to send each other love poems on February 14th. (it’s possible that these predate Chaucer, but we simply don’t know.) To put that another way, people have been writing valentines to their loved ones for over 500 years, so even if there’s no direct connection to a guy who was murdered horribly by ancient Roman pagans, it’s still part of a serious legacy of love.

That’s actually pretty heartwarming. I thought it was just another Hallmark Holiday…

Not so fast. Modern Valentine’s day is very much a product of the various industries that benefit from it – namely, stationery, chocolate, flowers, and jewelry. Every year, billions of dollars are spent on these items, even in countries where Western holidays are frowned upon or outlawed have seen an upsurge in Valentine’s Day gifts in recent years. In Saudi Arabia, where the holiday is illegal, there is a thriving black market for red roses and heart-shaped chocolates in February.

Interestingly in Japan, possibly due to a translation error in an early chocolate ad (the holiday was imported from the United States after the Second World War), women are expected to give chocolate to lovers, boyfriends, and even male co-workers. However, Japan also celebrates a gift-giving tradition on March 14th where they are expected to give white chocolates of equal or greater value to anyone who gave them chocolate in February.

All of this for an old skull sitting in a church in Rome?

The Scala Sancta is one of the largest relics in the world. An entire stone staircase brought from the Holy Land by Saint Helena, it is supposedly the same one that Jesus ascended on his way to being judged by Pontius Pilate.

Not just any old skull. Relics comprised the backbone of Rome’s original tourism industry which sprung up during the Middle Ages and was based around Christian Pilgrims who came to visit the City’s many churches and holy sites. Relics, in particular, became huge tourist draws because of the miraculous powers they were thought to contain – some of which could be transferred to the faithful who came in contact with them. In our less credulous time, relics have lost some of their ability to draw visitors but they remain impressive, and sometimes macabre additions to many of the churches in Rome.

Update notice: This article was updated on January 10, 2023.

The Strange but True Story Behind Valentine's Day (6)

by Martina V.

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The Strange but True Story Behind Valentine's Day (2024)

FAQs

The Strange but True Story Behind Valentine's Day? ›

Saint Valentine was discovered and imprisoned in a torture-ridden Roman jail, where he fell in love with a mysterious girl (believed to be his prosecutor's daughter). He sent her a love letter signed 'from your Valentine' right before his execution, thus originating the romantic sign-off still widely used today.

What is the real story behind Valentine's day? ›

Turns out, it was a pretty common name during Late Antiquity. As far as anyone can tell, the Saint Valentine of Valentine's Day was one of two guys preaching the good word in Rome in the third century. One of these two was martyred on February 14th 269, thus giving us the date for his eponymous day.

What is the hidden truth about Valentine's day? ›

The festival was meant to encourage a woman's fertility and pay homage to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, as well as Romulus and Remus, the Roman founders. It began with the sacrifice of a goat (representing fertility) and a dog (representing purification).

What is the dark story behind Valentine's day? ›

One Valentine was a priest in third-century Rome who defied Emperor Claudius II after the ruler outlawed marriage for young men. St. Valentine would perform marriages in secret for young lovers, ultimately leading to his death.

What is the pagan origin of Valentine's day? ›

However, many historians believe the day originated from the Roman pagan festival of fertility called Lupercalia, an event filled with animal sacrifice, random coupling and the whipping of women; not quite the romantic chocolate and roses day that we celebrate today.

What does the Bible say about Valentine's day? ›

1 John 4:7-12. Dear friends: let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.

What is the actual point of Valentine's day? ›

It originated as a Christian feast day honoring a martyr named Valentine, and through later folk traditions it has also become a significant cultural, religious and commercial celebration of romance and love in many regions of the world.

What is the secret history of Valentine's Day? ›

Some historians believe that the Festival of Lupercalia in ancient Rome would plant the seeds of what we know today as Valentine's Day. Lupercalia was a feast to honor Juno, the Roman goddess of marriage and a mythical character called the Capitoline Wolf.

What is a real fact about Valentine? ›

Some trace Valentine's Day origins to a Christian effort to replace a pagan fertility festival that has been dated as far back as the 6th century B.C. During the festival of Lupercalia, Roman priests would sacrifice goats and dogs and use their blood-soaked hides to slap women on the streets, as a fertility blessing.

What is the mystery behind Valentine? ›

Valentine's story is a bit of a mystery. So, the Catholic Church had at least three different saints named either Valentine or Valentinus, all martyred. Some say Valentine was a priest during the third century of Rome.

What is the bloody origin of Valentine's day? ›

The day is named after a Christian priest, Valentinus, who lived in the late third century AD and was beheaded on the orders of the pagan Roman emperor Claudius II on 14 February, a date subsequently commemorated by Christians as his feast day. But how did this bloody tale transform into a celebration of love?

Who was the killer on Valentine's day? ›

On Valentine's Day 1929, Thompson submaching guns shot and murdered seven men from Chicago's North Side Gang, headed by George Clarence “Bugs” Moran. Though the perpetrators of the massacre officially remain unidentified, many believe that members of Al Capone's South Side Gang are the culprits.

How is Valentine's day Massacre? ›

Valentine's Day Massacre. On February 14, 1929, seven members and associates of George “Bugs” Moran's bootlegging gang were lined up against a wall and shot dead inside the garage at 2122 North Clark Street. Al Capone's Chicago Outfit was widely suspected of ordering the hit, but no one was ever prosecuted.

What is the true story of Valentine's day? ›

According to NPR, Emperor Claudius II of Rome executed two different men named Valentine on February 14 (in two different years) during the third century. One account of St. Valentine says that he was a priest who was arrested for defying a Roman decree that forbade soldiers from marrying.

What is the full history of Valentine? ›

Valentine's Day did not come to be celebrated as a day of romance until about the 14th century. Although there were several Christian martyrs named Valentine, the day may have taken its name from a priest who was martyred about 270 ce by the emperor Claudius II Gothicus.

Why is February 14 special? ›

It was celebrated as the day of romance for over a period of time from about the 14th century. Another legend says that St Valentine was executed on February 14 as a punishment for performing secret marriages to save the husbands from going to war, as they were banned by Roman emperor Claudius II.

What is the logic behind Valentine's day? ›

While imprisoned, Valentine cared for his fellow prisoners and also his jailor's blind daughter. Legend has it that Valentine cured the girl's blindness and that his final act before being executed was to write her a love message signed 'from your Valentine'. Valentine was executed on 14 February in the year 270.

What was the real St Valentine's day massacre? ›

Valentine's Day Massacre. On February 14, 1929, seven members and associates of George “Bugs” Moran's bootlegging gang were lined up against a wall and shot dead inside the garage at 2122 North Clark Street. Al Capone's Chicago Outfit was widely suspected of ordering the hit, but no one was ever prosecuted.

Who was the real killer in Valentine? ›

Images. Who is Jeremy Melton? Jeremy Melton, also known as Cupid or The Cherub, is a psychopathic killer and the primary protagonist of the 2001 film Valentine.

What is the spiritual meaning of Valentine's day? ›

While the holiday has undergone secularization over time, its origins in Christian martyrdom and acts of love align with broader spiritual themes of compassion, selflessness, and devotion. For some, Valentine's Day serves as a reminder of the importance of love in both human relationships and spiritual practice.

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