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The Odd Origins of Valentine’s Day

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Today Valentine’s Day is an internationally recognized time to express love. But did you know that heartfelt cards, flowers, and chocolate aren’t the only way? And, it wasn’t the original way?

In fact, the origins of Valentine’s Day may have even been dark and bloody.

Valentine’s Day shares its name with possibly three martyred Saints named Valentine, but many historians believe the holiday actually stems from the pagan festival of Lupercalia.

Valentine's Day


Lupercalia is one of the most ancient Roman holidays that was listed on ancient calendars, possibly even before Julias Ceasar reformed the calendar.

The annual Lupercalia festival was held each year in Rome on February 15 and started off with the sacrificing of goats and dogs.  The sacrifices were made by a group of Roman priests known as Luperci.  Afterward, the foreheads of two naked Luperci would be smeared with the sacrificial blood using the knife that killed the animals.  The blood would then be wiped off by milk-soaked wool, as they laughed hysterically.

It gets even weirder…

After the sacrifices, more oddities were to follow. The Luperci, using cut strips of goat hide from the sacrificed goats (while naked and drunken) would whip willing women with the hide strips known as thongs.

Oddly, the women welcomed being whipped by the thongs.  They believed that the act ensured fertility by having their skin broken by the hides of symbolic fertility goats.

Valentine's Day

There were also strange matchmaking ceremonies where men randomly chose a woman’s name from a jar that they would be paired up with for the duration of the festival. Many couples matched up actually fell in love and eventually married.

As a result, many tie this festival to Saint Valentine’s Day origins due to the date and the connection between matchmaking, love, and babies.

Who was Saint Valentine?

Saint Valentine is recognized by the Roman Catholic church as a real priest who died on February 14 around A.D. 270. However, there are three recordings of a Saint Valentine being martyred on February 14th.

The first one is said to have died in Africa alongside 24 other soldiers and there is very little information about him.  The other two are noted as Priest Valentine of Rome and Bishop Valentine of Terni.

Priest Valentine of Rome

Emperor Claudius II felt that single men made better soldiers; therefore, forbade young men to marry.  But, Saint Valentine continued to perform secret weddings.  As a result, he was beheaded on February 14th.

Due to his dedication to the sanctity of marriage and martyrdom, Valentine was named a Saint after his death. He became popular as the saint of love by the Middle Ages and  Pope Gelasius declared February 14 as Valentine’s Day on 498 AD, as well as, put an end to pagan celebrations.

Bishop of Terni

Saint Valentine, bishop of Terni was reported to have been imprisoned, tortured, and beheaded on February 14, 269 A.D.  because he tried to convert Claudius, the Roman Emperor, to Christianity and refused to renounce his faith.

One legend claims that Valentine was loved by children. Apparently, while he was imprisoned the children would throw love notes and flowers into his cell window.  He is also reported to  have written a farewell note for the jailer’s daughter and signed it “From Your Valentine” which may be the how the modern day traditions started.

Because of the similarities of these accounts and dates there is some confusion, even in the Catholic church, if these two saints might actually have been the same person.

What does bird mating have to do with Valentine’s Day?

Another legend, according to revolves around the bird mating season.

During the Middle Ages, people in England and France believed that birds began to look for mates on February 14th furthering the notion that Valentine’s Day is a celebration of love and romance.

The notes that Geoffrey Chaucer was the first to make this bird mating connection in his poem Parlement of Foules (1382):


“For this was on seynt Valentynes day
When every foul comyth there to chese his make

(For this was on Saint Valentine’s day
When every bird came there to choose his mate)”

                                                 – Geoffrey Chaucer, 1382


How is Valentine’s Day Celebrated Around the World?

In the US, shelves are lined with chocolate, teddy bears, cards, and flowers.  It’s not limited to lovers.  Family and friends may exchange cards or gifts. Also, most school children make up Valentine’s Day boxes and exchange cards and candy with classmates.

A December 6, 2017 article in notes the following 10 alternative traditions to celebrate love, or even lack there of, around the world:


Valentine's Day

Apparently, in Denmark instead of roses, white flowers called snow drops are exchanged.  Men also men also give women funny poems or rhymes signed only with anonymous dots.  If the woman can guess the sender she will receive an Easter egg later that year.


Charles, Duke of Orleans, sent the first Valentine’s Day love letter to his wife while he was imprisoned in London in 1415.  Valentine’s Day are still a popular tradition in France and around the world.

Valentine's Day

The “drawing for love” or loterie d’amour was another Valentine tradition. Men and women would fill houses that faced one another, and then take turns calling out to one another and pairing off. If a man was unsatisfied with his match up, he could simply leave for another woman,  The unmatched women on the other hand gathered around afterward for a bonfire in which they burned pictures of the men who wronged them, cursed, and hurled insults.

The bonfires apparently became so vengeful and uncontrollable (and who could blame them?!) that eventually the French government banned them all together.

South Korea

Valentine’s Day in South Korea is celebrated monthly from February through April with a few extra twists.

Starting on February 14th, women gift men with chocolates, candies, and flowers.  But, on March 14th it’s the men’s turn to provide chocolates and flowers, but they step it up by adding a gift as well.  This day is referred to as White Day.

The third holiday, known as Black Day, is celebrated on April 14th for those that didn’t have love ones to celebrate Valentine’s or White Day.  It’s a day for singles to mourn their status by eating dark bowls of black bean noodles.


The Welsch celebrate their day of love on January 25th, known as Saint Dwynwen Day.   A romantic Saint Dwynwen gift is a love spoon. This tradition started when Welsch men in the 17th century began to carve symbols and patterns into wooden spoons as a token of affection for the women they loved. Each signifying a different personal meaning.

Valentine's Day

The love spoon tradition continues today but is also exchanged at weddings, anniversaries, or births as well.


The Chinese celebrate Qixi, or the Seventh Night Festival which is the equivalent to Valentine’s Day.  It is held on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month each year. According to Chinese folklore a king’s daughter a poor cowherd fell in love, married and had twins. When the king learned of their marriage, he sent his queen to bring her back to the stars. Upon hearing the cries of his daughter and her children he allowed them to meet once a year on Qixi.

At night, people look to the stars to see the pair’s annual reunion.  Young women also prepare offerings of melon and other fruits in hopes of finding a husband. Couples go to temples to pray for happiness and prosperity.


On Valentine’s Day eve women in England place five bay leaves in their pillows to entice dreams of their future husbands. Alternatively, they would wet bay leaves with rosewater and place them across their pillows.

In Norfolk, Jack Valentine knocks at the door of children leaving candies and small gifts on their porches as a sort of Santa that they are unable to catch.


In the Phillipines it has become a very popular tradition to marry on February 14.  This has resulted in mass wedding ceremonies at malls or other public areas around the country to get married or renew their vows en masse.


It was a Italian Valentine’s belief that the first man an unmarried woman say on Valentine’s Day would marry her within a year.  As a result, young unmarried women to wake up before dawn to try to spot their future husbands.

Italian traditions also include gathering outside gardens for poetry readings, music, and romantic strolls.  As well as, more modernly gift exchanges and romantic dinners.


Brazilians celebrate Lover’s Day, or Dia Dos Namorados, on June 12th.  There are music festivals held throughout the country, gifts, flowers and cards.  In Brazil, people celebrate this day of love by exchanging gifts and sharing dinner with friends and relatives, too.

Valentine's Day

Saint Anthony’s Day is the day after Lover’s Day which honors the patron saint of marriage. Single women perform rituals called simpatias hoping Saint Anthony will bring them a husband.

South Africa

Valentine’s Day in South Africa is celebrated with the traditional festivals, flowers and other tokens of love. But, woman also wear their hearts on their sleeves on February 14th pinning the name of their desire on their shirtsleeve. Often, South African men learn of their secret admirers through this custom.

Do you celebrate Valentine’s Day?  If so, what are your traditions?

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