The History of Valentine's Day

Couple with heart-shaped balloon gazing at each other during dusk.

Cultura / Spark Photographic / Riser / Getty Images

St Valentine's Day has roots in several different legends that have found their way to us through the ages. One of the earliest popular symbols of Valentine's day is Cupid, the Roman god of love, who is represented by the image of a young boy with bow and arrow. Several theories surround the history of Valentine's Day.

Was There a Real Valentine?

About 300 years after the death of Jesus Christ, the Roman emperors still demanded that everyone believe in the Roman gods. Valentine, a Christian priest, had been thrown in prison for his teachings. On February 14, Valentine was beheaded, not only because he was a Christian but also because he had performed a miracle. He supposedly cured the jailer's daughter of her blindness. The night before he was executed, he wrote the jailer's daughter a farewell letter, signing it "From Your Valentine." Another legend tells us that this same Valentine, well-loved by all, received notes while in his jail cell from children and friends who missed him.

Bishop Valentine?

Another Valentine was an Italian bishop who lived at about the same time, A.D. 200. He was imprisoned because he secretly married couples, contrary to the laws of the Roman emperor. Some legends say he was burned at the stake.

Feast of Lupercalia

The ancient Romans celebrated the feast of Lupercalia, a spring festival, on the 15th of February. It was held in honor of a goddess. Young men randomly chose the name of a young girl to escort to the festivities. With the introduction of Christianity, the holiday moved to the 14th of February. The Christians came to celebrate February 14 as the saint day that celebrated the several early Christian martyrs named Valentine.

Choosing a Sweetheart on Valentine's Day

The custom of choosing a sweetheart on this date spread through Europe in the Middle Ages, and then to the early American colonies. Throughout the ages, people also believed that birds picked their mates on February 14.

In A.D. 496, Saint Pope Gelasius I declared February 14 as "Valentine's Day." Although it's not an official holiday, most Americans observe this day.

Despite the odd mixture of its origins, St. Valentine's Day is now a day for sweethearts. It is the day that you show your friend or loved one that you care. You might send candy to someone you think is special or send roses, the flower of love. Most people send "valentine," a greeting card so named for the notes that St. Valentine received in jail.

Greeting Cards

Probably the first greeting cards, handmade valentines, appeared in the 16th century. As early as 1800, companies began mass-producing cards. Initially, these cards were hand-colored by factory workers. By the early 20th century, even fancy lace and ribbon-strewn cards were created by machines.