Valentine's Day: History and Origins of the Popular February Holiday

Valentine's Day: History and Origins of the Popular February Holiday
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Mysterious Roots

Ever wonder where the custom originated, why we use cards and verse, or where the symbolic heart symbol came from? There are several stories behind this popular holiday.

Almost two thousand years ago, a Christian priest in imperial Rome who was martyred under the emperor Claudius II—Claudius the Cruel—has been said to have married couples despite current edicts prohibiting marriage (because the emperor wanted men for his army instead).

It is also said that this same priest, Saint Valentine, sent notes to a jailer’s daughter signed, “from your Valentine,” when he was imprisoned. Despite this anecdotal evidence, historical experts believe that his only connection to the holiday was simply because of the placement of his name on the Christian calendar.

Charles, the Duke of Orleans, (duc d’Orleans,) was a prisoner of war in 1415 France and became famous for sending his wife romantic poems from an English prison. However, some love experts feel this was not the inciting incident for Valentine’s Day either.

Tradition Rather Than Religion

An ancient Roman festival called Lupercalia, “feasts of Lupercus,” was celebrated on February 14th. The early Romans believed that a god of nature named Lupercus protected them from wolves and looked after their animals and crops. This festival was held in spring and not unlike a lot of other Roman goings on, was known for its licentiousness—a day of pursuing the heart’s desires.

On the night before Lupercalia, girls would write their names on a piece of paper and place them in a jar. The next day, boys would take turns drawing names. They would then become partnered for games and dances during the festival.

In medieval times, a folk tradition became known for the springtime arrival of birds when they paired off for mating season in mid-February. These two historical events in concert morphed into tradition and by the seventeenth century in France, it was customary to choose a sweetheart for the day by drawing lots from a Valentine box.


Around the same time in England, the Valentine recipient—again chosen by fate in the form of name drawing—was presented with love tokens or prettily written prose. This didn’t become a vow of love until seized upon around 1790 in Germany, where printed cards called Freundschaftkarten or “friendship cards” became common.

The English still preferred handwritten notes and had a guidebook to rely on called The Complete British Valentine Writer or the High Road to Love for Both Sexes. This little handbook provided literary advice and samples of written correspondence for determined yet amateur writers.

Of course, we teach the tradition to our offspring starting in grade school, when little children make Valentine’s Day boxes and decorate them in anticipation of a greeting card exchange, usually one-page verses written by the favorite icons of the cartoon world or graphics of popular superheroes to express their message.

While the more elaborate gifts are reserved for lovers, Valentine messages can be sent to any friend, relative or love interest.

Heart Symbol

The heart symbol looks nothing like a real human heart.

Anyone who has taken Biology 101 knows that the real anatomical heart looks nothing like the double-lobed symmetrical figure that tapers to a point at the bottom we all know and love. What it does resemble however, are certain anatomical parts.

According to Desmond Morris, who wrote The Human Ape in 1985, the heart shape more closely resembles a stylized human buttocks. He surmises that a doodler may have diddled with the subject and created the current conventional design.

Another more prominent anatomical feature suggests it looks a lot like a female torso with a small waist. And finally, the last image that most closely resembles the heart shape might actually be taken from a red lip imprint kissed onto paper from milady, as a token of love.


This post is part of the series: Curious Customs: Stories Behind Popular Holidays

We take holidays for granted in that we celebrate them according to tradition, but where did the tradition come from? Why do we buy a Christmas tree? Why are hearts popular on Valentines? What is the reason we decorate pumpkins for Halloween? Find out in this series.

  1. The History of Valentine’s Day
  2. The Origin of Presidents' Day: Who Are We Celebrating?
  3. Who Was St. Patrick?
  4. Origin of April Fool’s Day
  5. The Science, History and Culture Behind the Spring Equinox
  6. Curious Customs: Stories Behind Popular Holidays—Passover Seder
  7. Curious Customs & Stories Behind Mother’s Day
  8. History & Origins of Labor Day
  9. The Origins of Common Good Luck Traditions
  10. Three Superstitions and Their Origins
  11. The History of the Olympic Games
  12. What is All Hallows Eve? The Customs and Origins of Halloween
  13. The Origins of Thanksgiving: The Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth