When Valentine’s Day rolls around, it’s inevitable that you’ll hear someone exclaim, “It’s just a holiday created by Hallmark!” Sure, card and chocolate companies have come to define the holiday, but are they truly responsible for all the canoodling that goes on every February 14th? Short answer: nope! Here are some historical facts you might not know about Valentine’s Day:
There are many origin stories floating around and no one is really sure which one, if any, are true. But one of the most popular legends is that, back in third century Rome, Emperor Claudius II outlawed marriage because he believed single men made better soldiers than those who were pining for lovers back home. Despite the decree, a man named Valentine performed secret marriages and was jailed for doing so. While awaiting his execution, some say he wrote a love letter — arguably the first valentine — to his crush (who may or may not have been the jailer’s daughter). He allegedly signed his note “from your Valentine.”
So now we have a figurehead for the holiday, but why February 14th? Some say that this goes back to an ancient Roman fertility festival called Lupercalia, which was celebrated from February 13th to the 15th. The event involved wine, nudity and slapping women with strips of goat hide drenched in sacrificial blood. Yes, you read that right. Ancient people do the darnedest things. Anyway, the women allegedly welcomed this because being marked in this way was thought to make them more fertile. The female festival goers would also put their names in an urn for the town’s single men to choose from. The matches would then, um, “get to know” each other for the rest of the festival.
The Christian church didn’t exactly love all this naked blood-soaked hide slapping, so, in the fifth century, Pope Gelasius outlawed Lupercalia and made up a new family friendlier event to take its place: a day in honor of St. Valentine on February 14th, the day he was martyred.
The secret weddings and the weird blood slaps are sort of romantic, but the love aspect associated with the holiday was turned way up in the Middle Ages. During that time period, people in England and France were said to associate February 14th with the beginning of birds’ mating season. This belief is reflected in Chaucer’s “Parliament of the Foules”: “For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.” This avian focus led to the superstition that a woman could tell what kind of man she would marry by the type of bird she spotted on Valentine’s Day. A blackbird signified a priest, a bluebird meant a funny dude, a dove equaled a kind man, a goldfinch meant a super rich one and a woodpecker signified no man at all!
This loaded bird-watching wasn’t the only weird superstition women took part in around the holiday. Medieval women would eat bizarre foods to bring on dreams of their future husbands. They also believed these dreams would come, if they pinned sage to their pillows or placed a slice of wedding cake underneath them.
In France, there was a custom called “une loterie d’amour,” which translates to “drawing for love” and involved single people hollering at each other from windows across a street. They would eventually pair up, but, if the man didn’t particularly like the woman he ended up with, he would ditch her for someone else. The women left behind would then make a bonfire and burn pictures of the ungrateful men, while cursing them. The French government eventually banned the custom because, if history has taught us anything, there’s nothing scarier to men in power than single women who have opinions.
In the 1800s, the first box of chocolates was invented by Richard Cadbury, heir to the Cadbury chocolate fortune, who gave chocolates arranged in a heart-shaped box to his lover. Interestingly, physicians around this time often prescribed chocolate to calm patients’ pining for lost love. You never have to feel bad about devouring a whole King Size Kit Kat bar again; it’s medicine!
Passing around handmade cards and small tokens as symbols of affection became popular in the 1700s. A century later, Esther A. Howland, also known as “Mother of the Valentine,” began selling the first mass-produced valentines in America. Around this time, a new trend called Vinegar Valentines became popular. They were rude cards sent anonymously to either spurn advances or just to stick it to someone you didn’t like. The YouTube comments of yore, if you will. It wasn’t until 1913 that Hallmark got in on the action. Fast forward to present day, and over 1 billion cards are sent every Valentine’s Day.
So there you have it: the bizarre historical twists and turns that have led us to this point. Next time you hear someone say Hallmark created Valentine’s Day, enjoy the look on their face as you tell them all about how naked dudes used to run around with bloody lamb skin whips.
This piece was inspired by an episode of The Cooler, KQED’s weekly pop culture podcast. Give it a listen!