A red noose in a heart shape.

This Saturday is Valentine’s Day, a day when many lovebirds exchange gifts and flowers and head out on the town for candlelit dinners, and school children swap heart-adorned cards and candy with their classmates. It turns out, however, that the history behind Valentine’s Day isn’t quite the romance-filled memoir that you might expect.

Lupercalia, the Festival of Fertility

Historians trace the origins of Valentine’s Day back to the time of ancient Rome, when citizens celebrated an annual pagan festival each February called Lupercalia. Men sacrificed dogs and goats, and then women lined up to be slapped by the hides of the slain animals. Romans believed that this ritual would make the women fertile.

The Execution of the Valentines

Hundreds of years later, Emperor Claudius II, who reigned from 268 to 270 A.D. and earned the name Claudius the Cruel, ordered the execution of at least two different men named Valentine.

One such Valentine was a priest. Claudius’s efforts to recruit enough soldiers for his army were thwarted, he believed, by men who were too attached to their wives and children—so he banned all marriages in Rome. Valentine the priest continued to perform marriage ceremonies in secret for couples in love. When he was caught, Claudius ordered his public beheading—on February 14, about the year 270.

St. Valentine’s Day to Honor Martyrs

In 496 A.D., Pope Gelasius marked February 14 as a day to honor Valentine and other martyrs: St. Valentine’s Day. Although historical records are not consistent in identifying who exactly Saint Valentine was, most historians say it was the priest with a soft spot for love who inspired Valentine’s Day.

In the Catholic religion, Saint Valentine is called the Patron Saint of “affianced couples, bee keepers, engaged couples, epilepsy, fainting, greetings, happy marriages, love, lovers, plague, travelers, and young people,” (www.catholic.org/saints).

Valentine’s Day, the Holiday of Love

In the late 1300s, Valentine’s Day became associated with romance and love. English poet Geoffrey Chaucer penned the love poem, “The Parliament of Fowls,” and finished it in time for February 14, 1383.

By the 17th century, the British had begun a tradition of exchanging Valentine’s letters, and the United States began mass producing Valentine’s Day cards in the 1840s.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Regardless of its unexpected—and not necessarily romantic—origins, Valentine’s Day is a fun excuse to celebrate love and happiness. So, go get yourself a box of chocolates and enjoy.

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone.

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