The Convoluted History of Valentine’s Day
By Rebecca D’Harlingue
February 14, 2023

Think Valentine’s Day is just a Hallmark holiday? Think again. Its roots go back seventeen centuries. There is disagreement on what’s fact and what’s legend, but it seems that there were actually two St. Valentines who were executed in third-century Rome. Some say that one was executed for performing wedding ceremonies for Roman soldiers, who were forbidden from marrying. One story says that a Valentine was executed because he tried to convert his captor, whose daughter he cured of her blindness. This did not save him, however, and he wrote her a note the night before his execution, signing it “Your Valentine.”

 One disputed theory is that Christian Rome tried to replace a pagan holiday, Lupercalia, with a day honoring the saint. On Lupercalia, men went around hitting women with strips of the hide of a goat, which was supposed to confer fertility. Some say that men picked names of women from an urn, and the two would be “partnered.” Some say for the day, some say for a year.

The facts for these stories are hotly contested, but in a way, it doesn’t matter whether they are true. They are all beliefs about Valentine’s Day at various times, and so they are all part of its history.

Vinegar Valentine

There does seem to be general agreement on the first real association of St. Valentine’s Day with romance, and that stems from Geoffrey Chaucer, whose 1382 poem “Parlement of Foules” portrayed a dream of a group of birds choosing their mates on St. Valentine’s Day. Perhaps partly stemming from this, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the celebration of the day as one of love was associated with the “lovebirds” of early spring.

 St. Valentine’s Day was officially recognized by Royal Charter by a love-struck King Henry VIII in 1537. One assumes his love at that time was Jane Seymour. This would have been a year after he beheaded wife number two, Anne Boleyn, and five years before he beheaded wife number five, Catherine Howard. Henry hardly seems the ideal person to have championed the holiday of love.

In eighteenth-century England, couples expressed their love with flowers, candies, and greeting cards, called Valentines. The nineteenth century saw the first Valentine’s cards in the way that we think of them. At first, they were very elaborate, and included ribbon and real lace. Later, paper lace was used, as cards were mass produced. In 1840, 400,000 Valentine cards were sent through the English post. Some of the cards already featured Cupid, the chubby little cherub who goes around with his bow and arrow, searching for innocent victims. He might be seen as less than benign, and though his mother is Venus, the goddess of love, his father is Mars, the god of war.

A very strange variation came about during Victorian times, and that was the “Vinegar Valentine.” These cards were to put someone off, and could be very rude and even cruel. One read, “To My Valentine / ‘Tis a lemon that I hand you and bid you now ‘skidoo,’ / Because I love another – there is no chance for you.” Some specifically attacked suffragists. To add insult to injury, the cards were often sent anonymously, and C.O.D. (cash on delivery), so the recipient had to pay for it. They were usually destroyed by the recipient. 

To join the manufactured Valentine’s cards, in 1866 the Chase candy company put out the first conversation hearts. In 1868, Cadbury put out the first heart-shaped candy boxes.

A modern twist to St. Valentine’s story is that his name was taken off the official Catholic calendar in 1969, when a number of other saints were also removed. It seems that the reason for this was, in part, that because there are so many saints of that name, it wasn’t clear which St. Valentine the day was originally supposed to honor. The date that the calendar changes was authorized? February 14th.

Jumping ahead to today, Valentine’s Day persists. Millions of dollars are spent every year on cards, candy, flowers, and jewelry. I suppose this number even includes the box of funny cards that elementary school kids buy to swap with the other students in the class. (If you give to anyone, you must give to everyone.) If the innocence of this exchange doesn’t put to rest your belief that Valentine’s Day is nothing more than a money-maker for big companies, remember, you can always make like a medieval lover and write a poem for your sweetheart.


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Rebecca D’Harlingue
Written by Rebecca D’Harlingue

Award-winning author Rebecca D’Harlingue writes about seventeenth-century women forging a different path. Her debut novel, The Lines Between Us, won an Independent Press Award and a CIBA Chaucer Award. Her next novel, The Map Colorist, comes out in September, 2023.

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