The Ultimate Debate: The Origins of Valentine’s Day

The history of Valentine’s Day is pretty muddy. Many believe Valentine’s Day was created solely to drive sales for cards, flowers, and gifts—a so-called Hallmark creation. Some claim its roots are Christian, while others say it comes from a pagan ritual or a poem from the Middle Ages. Possibly, it’s a combination of all four.

There are no clear indications in history as to why this staple “love” holiday was created, but we’ve laid out the history… so you can decide for yourself: Hallmark creation, pagan, Christian, or poem?

Origin 1: A Card Company

Valentine’s Day is often considered a Hallmark holiday because it’s tied to retail, rather than a day that celebrates a tradition or historical event. It seems to benefit Hallmark (and other companies) who receive profits from cards and items sold to recognize the day.

But Hallmark insists it can’t create holidays. The company says people determine holidays based on their desire to celebrate significant days and events recorded in history. The National Retail Foundation predicts U.S. consumers will spend $27.4 billion on Valentine’s Day celebrations this year. But Hallmark only began selling Valentine’s Day cards in 1913, and the holiday can be traced much farther back than that.

Origin 2: A Pagan Ritual

Many may associate Valentine’s Day with romance, but our current practices may be due more to pagan activities in ancient Rome and Greece. In fact, ancient Roman calendars included a mid-February holiday called Lupercalia, which celebrated fertility and couples pairing off. Ancient Greece, too, observed a mid-winter celebration for the marriage of the god and goddess, Zeus and Hera. Historians believe these traditions may have influenced the date and how people celebrate today.

Origin 3: A Celebrated Saint

According to Roman legend, there was a priest named Valentine who was imprisoned for his beliefs and sentenced to death. But it’s possible there were three men by this name. Little is known about one of the men, except he was martyred in Africa. The other two, who came from Rome and Terni, were sentenced to death by the Roman emperor. Some believe they may even be the same person.

According to one accepted story, Roman emperor Claudius II decided single men made better soldiers and prohibited young men from getting married, so they would not be distracted by family. But Valentine defied the emperor’s decree and continued performing marriages in secret. The emperor discovered, arrested, and sentenced him to death. While in prison, Valentine fell in love with his jailer’s daughter and sent her a letter, signed “from your Valentine.” He was executed on Feb. 14, 270 AD.

In 496 AD, Pope Gelasius established the Feast of St. Valentine on Feb. 14 to honor his memory. But some say the pope declared this feast to replace the Lupercalia celebration.

Origin 4: A Poem from the Middle Ages

Romantic greetings can be traced back to the Middle Ages (the era of courtly love), and written valentines began to appear after 1400. Some historians say Geoffrey Chaucer (author of The Canterbury Tales) wrote a poem that tied the holiday to some English birds, who began their mating season in February. Before long, European nobility started sending love notes.

What’s Love Got to Do with It?

Though Valentine’s Day may have begun as a pagan ritual and evolved to a religious celebration, it’s become whatever you want it to be today. More recently, women have started celebrating their closest friends with Galentine’s Day.

So, who is important to you? Even if it’s not about romance, Valentine’s Day is a good opportunity to let someone know you care. Sharing love or compassion doesn’t have to cost money, but it could be priceless to someone who needs a heart-felt message. Try it. You might be surprised at how much more you enjoy the day. Perhaps love has a lot to do with it, after all.

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