This weekend my niece celebrated her birthday and as soon as I walked into their home instead of wanting to show me her birthday gifts, she and her cousins had far more pressing matters – making sure I see their, and I quote, “Love Day outfits.” After all the squealing, pulling and competing for my attention I was finally able to ask them if they understood why we celebrated Valentine’s Day? The puzzled looks on their faces gave away their answers and it dawned on me that I did not fully know the answer. I made a mental note to research the history of Valentine’s Day, and here’s what I found out…

The Murky, Gory History of February the 14th

I wish there was a cute origin story bookended by cupid and a neat red bow but as it turns out, nobody knows the true origin of this globally celebrated holiday. The many theories around the origins of the day keep seasoned historians arguing amongst themselves about where the exact traditions that have inspired/informed our current celebration of the holiday stem from? But before we get into the theories around the backstory I must warn you that the stories are not pretty. The origins of Valentine’s Day are rooted in some pretty dark and gruesome Pagan rituals. So how did we get from gruesome execution-style rituals to the cute hearts, cupid, and creative over the top declarations of love?  

Will the Real St. Valentine Please Stand Up? 

Here’s what we do know – the day itself was named after St. Valentine however, historians are unsure as to which St. Valentine the day is named after as there were two St. Valentine’s who was killed on the 14th of February in different years by Roman Emperor Claudius II. 

One theory states that St. Valentine was arrested after he defied an order that forbade Roman soldiers from getting married by Emperor Claudius but was later executed for his religious zeal regarding marriage. According to The History Channel, another theory behind the origin of the day involves the practice of writing love letters to your Valentine. Legend has it that St. Valentine was the first person to write a letter signed “From your Valentine,” to a young girl he tutored and fell in love with while serving his prison sentence for the above-mentioned crime. The other St. Valentine was from Terni, and he was reportedly arrested and beheaded for secretly officiating the weddings of Roman soldiers. 

Another theory reports that St. Valentine’s Day was started by Pope Gelasius I in hopes of overshadowing an ancient Roman pagan festival called Lupercalia. Lupercalia was a bloody, violent and sexually charged festival of fertility dedicated to the Roman god of agriculture, Faunas, and Roman founders Romulus and Remus. The celebration took place on February the 15th with a ritual that involved naked Roman priests running through the streets, slapping women with blood-soaked hides of sacrificed animals which they believed promoted fertility. The blood-soaked flogging was followed by men selecting random women’s names from a jar for the purpose of coupling for the next year. If the “couple” fell in love then they’d get married. 

Imagine, butt naked priests running through the streets of Jozi flogging us with animal blood on our way to a couples lottery? Haibo! 

So, How Does Cupid Fit Into The Picture? 

I remember learning about Cupid in my Roman mythology classes in primary school. If my memory serves me well, Venus the goddess of beauty and love was the mother of Cupid. Cupid was well known for shooting his arrows of love at both gods and humans, which resulted in them falling madly in love with one another. It is still a mystery as to how Cupid got roped into the Valentine’s Day narrative, I can certainly understand why he was incorporated.  

From Beheadings and Blood Flogging to Flowers, Chocolates, Poetry and Heart-Shaped Cards?  

The late University of Kansas English professor Jack B. Oruch, came up with a complete and more palpable theory, after extensively studying and researching “The Parlement of Foules” and “The Complaint of Mars” both works of 14th Century poet Geoffrey Chaucer. Oruch believed that Chaucer invented Valentine’s Day as we currently know and celebrate by linking love with St. Valentine’s Day for the first time. During the period of Chaucer, the 14th of February also happened to be considered the first day of spring in Britain as it was believed to be the start of the mating season for the birds. 

Whether or not Chaucer can be fully credited as the originator of the day, he and contemporary Shakespeare can most certainly be credited with the amorous expressions associated with the day. People were inspired by their works and soon began penning and exchanging letters filled with declarations of love in celebration of Valentine’s Day. In the early 1910s, an American company now known as Hallmark saw a gap in the market and began distributing “Valentine’s Day cards” and soon people started sending flowers, chocolates or other heart-shaped sweets, jewellery, and more!

Final Thoughts

While the bloody murky history of its origin may have you questioning if it’s something you want to share with your children or celebrate in the future. I think it’s important that we allow history to personally inform our why? Learning about the different theories has highlighted a couple (unintended pun) of things for me. Firstly, our bodies do carry generations of history in them because how else do we explain the years of internal wrestling that I and many others have experienced when it comes to Valentine’s Day? Secondly, love truly has the power to not only transform lives but narratives too.

Happy Love Day to you and yours. May your love continue to grow and blossom into its full transformative power – shaping and changing the outcomes of traumatic childhood experiences and histories. Let us happily indulge and soak up our little human’s excitement about celebrating love day. May their innocence inform our understanding and experiences. Frankly, our world can do with more childlike celebrations of love day.