How Valentine’s Day Went From Beheading to Dating

Valentine’s Day is one of those holidays I often overlook, being single and uninterested in romantic exploits in general. So much so, in fact, that this article is a bit late! My interest in hunting down the origins of all our traditions and holidays, however, took me over late on Valentine’s Day and I just had to start my research on this holiday.

The modern celebration is marked, in the west, by a flurry of cards, chocolates, and dates. It’s a time where you express your love, particularly to lovers. Despite this, it’s also the time when school children make and pass out Valentine’s Day cards for all their classmates and, in my family anyway, we often give each other (parents and siblings) little chocolates. But where did all this come from?

Saint Valentine?

The obvious starting point was to go on a hunt for Catholic saints, given that the day is sometimes referred to as Saint Valentine’s Day. Thus, my search for a Saint Valentine or similar name who died on February 14th (or near) began.

Lo and behold there were several! Most of them were for names like Valentini or Valentinus, but that’s definitely close enough in my book. The only problem is that most of them aren’t associated with love at all. I wasn’t expected to find a saint who encapsulated the romantic feelings or card givings of the modern holiday, for they change so much and sometimes quite quickly, but I did expect to find someone who was perhaps involved with uniting people in marriage.

The popular story, I was told, was that Saint Valentine was a priest who was arrested for marrying Christian couples then lost his head. The problem was that I couldn’t verify that story at all. Christian persecution by Rome is somewhat over-exaggerated by history anyway, and ancient (and even not-so-ancient) historians weren’t all that interested in historical fact. The idea of “history” was to teach lessons and understand greater truths. This was true not just for the history of the saints, but also for rulers, popular heroes, and even “encyclopedias” about animals.

The very first Saint Valentine was apparently killed in Africa. Try as I may, there is no account of this man except that he died on February 14th. In fact, that rings true for many, many saints; all they leave behind is a name and a death day. Birthdays are increasingly difficult to find the further back you go, and many of them leave no account of their lives or the supposed miracles they worked to achieve their sainthood.

The next Saint Valentine I discovered had a little more of a biography, or at least an account of what made him canonized as a saint. This one was beheaded by Roman emperor Caesar Gothicus, also known as Claudius II. He was at first arrested (but I can’t find a reason why) and placed in the custody of an aristocrat named Asterius. As many Christians did, he continued to preach while in custody, much to Asterius’ chagrin.

The aristocrat, fed up and likely fearing his own arrest as well, made a bet with Father Valentine: cure his daughter (sometimes a step-daughter or even an adopted daughter) of her blindness and he would convert to Christianity.

We’re talking about a Catholic saint here, so we all know what happened. He placed his hands on the girl’s eyes, said a prayer, and she could finally see. Amazed, the entire family was baptized, but Asterius’ fears came to fruition, for the Emperor got news of this and ordered them all executed.

Father Valentine was beheaded, but a widow made off with his remains and buried him on the Via Flaminia. Later a chapel was erected there and the priest was canonized.

I did happen to find another Valentinus with an almost identical story. This man was a bishop, not a priest, and the child healed was the aristocrat’s son, not daughter. He, too, was allegedly beheaded by the same emperor and buried in the same place. Perhaps this is just a different telling of the same Valentinus, though.

You’re probably thinking, “This is interesting, but it doesn’t tell me anything about why I feel compelled to buy chocolates and go out to dinner with my boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife!”

I’m getting to that. Give me a second.

It actually turns out that, like many of our modern holidays and festivals, there are plenty of pagan origins and influences injected into Valentine’s Day.

The Violent Lupercalia

Some historians believe that Valentine’s Day is heavily influenced or even an off-shoot of a holiday so old it may predate the Roman Empire! That holiday is Lupercalia, but it’s hardly a holiday most of us would want to celebrate today.

This celebration took place between February 13th and 15th and begins, as many ancient celebrations do, with animal sacrifice.

Now, you’re probably thinking of things like goats and sheep, but the people took it a bit further than that by adding dogs into the mix. Yeah, let’s start a celebration by sacrificing man’s best friend! I don’t know who thought that (or the killing of animals in general as a blood sacrifice) was a good idea, but this already seems like a celebration I wouldn’t want to partake in.

These sacrifices were performed by the Luperci, or priests. After the bloody deed had been done, two of the Luperci, usually young, would be naked and the blood of the animals smeared onto their foreheads. The blood, which was applied using the sacrificial knife, was then wiped off using a piece of milk-soaked wool.

Afterward the feast would begin, followed by a bizarre practice in which strips were cut from the recently sacrificed goats’ hides. They called these nasty little strips “thongs” and would run naked through the festival, whipping any woman within striking distance.

The women weren’t upset, though. They enjoyed it so much, they would bare their flesh to receive them! It may have had something to do with fertility…

Still doesn’t sound like wholesome Valentine’s Day fun? We’re coming to the bit that might indicate bits of this practice were carried over into Valentine’s Day.

The men at the festival would draw women’s names from a jar to be coupled with them throughout the festival, often staying together at least until the start of the next festival. They frequently got married as well.

So you can see how it all revolved around a bizarre courtship-type practice. But is this the origin of Valentine’s Day? It could be, but there are a few things carried over from other ancient practices as well.

Other Stuff

Cupid, the Roman god of love (called Eros in Greek), also figures strongly into Valentine’s Day imagery.

As for the heart-shaped cards and such, that likely stems from ancient Egypt and Roman ideas about what purpose the heart served.

The Egyptians, as well as some Greeks such as Aristotle, believed that the heart was an organ of intellect. Namely, it was the source of our memories and emotions. They placed so much importance on the heart for that reason that the heart was left inside the body during the mummification process, and in case you didn’t know, the brain was chucked out during it.

The Roman physician Galen, on the other hand, believed that the heart had less to do with intellect and more to do with emotion. Love was found in the liver, however.

I have no idea how any of these people managed to reason that the heart or liver were the things that housed our emotions, memories, or anything else. The people of the medieval ages, however, paired the heart with love once again, tossing Galen’s theory out the window.

They were a bit odd about hearts, too. During the reign of King Richard I (and a bit before and after) Englishmen were insisting that their hearts be buried separately from their bodies. Love, you see, was found in the heart, and courtly love was tied in with spiritual attainment. Somehow this means you should bury the heart separately…

Well, that’s it! More about Valentine’s Day than you probably wished to know.




Guy Andersin spends his time writing, learning languages playing video games, creating games for PC and iPhone, binge watching movies and TV shows, and camping.

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Guy Andersin

Guy Andersin

Guy Andersin spends his time writing, learning languages playing video games, creating games for PC and iPhone, binge watching movies and TV shows, and camping.

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