Valentine's Day: The Wild, Pagan History Behind the Romantic Holiday

Feb. 14 wasn't always about chocolates and flowers. Learn about Valentine's Day's surprisingly naughty origins.

Dan Avery Former Writer
Dan was a writer on CNET's How-To and Thought Leadership teams. His byline has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, NBC News, Architectural Digest and elsewhere. He is a crossword junkie and is interested in the intersection of tech and marginalized communities.
Expertise Personal finance | Government and Policy | Consumer affairs
Dan Avery
5 min read
Valentine's Day

A couple on Valentine's Day.

Cultura RM Exclusive/Spark Photographic

On Valentine's Day, millions present flowers, chocolates and cards to their sweethearts. While the holiday's traditions really became cemented in the 1800s, historians link its roots to wild pagan revelries from before the birth of Saint Valentine himself.

Read on for Valentine's Day's Roman origins, its rise as a Christian holiday and the emergence of now-familiar V-day traditions.

For more Valentine's Day fun, check out Google's Valentine's Day Google Doodle, a guide to being single on Valentine's Day and tips on avoiding romance scams.

The origins of Valentine's Day

Many historians believe the seeds of Valentine's Day were planted in Lupercalia, an ancient Roman festival honoring Juno, the Roman goddess of marriage, and the Capitoline Wolf, a mythic creature who supposedly suckled Romulus and Remus, Rome's twin founders, when they were abandoned as infants. (The Latin word for wolf is lupus.)

Lupercalia celebration

Young priests being painted with goat blood during the feast of Lupercalia.

De Agostini Picture Library/Getty Images

Dating back at least to the 6th century B.C., Lupercalia was a sexually charged and violent rite, involving the sacrifice of dogs and male goats as a sign of virility.

On Feb. 15, priests known as Luperci had their foreheads anointed with the blood from the sacrificial knife, and then were wiped clean with wool soaked in milk. The Luperci would later cut strips of goat hide and run naked through the city, whipping nearby women with the bloody hide. 

"Many women of rank also purposely get in their way and, like children at school, present their hands to be struck," Plutarch wrote in his Life of Caesar. "The belief is that the pregnant will thus be helped in delivery and the barren to pregnancy."
Also during Lupercalia, men would choose a woman's name from a jar and escort her to the festival. In some cases, the couple would form a romantic bond, or even marry.

The evolution of Valentine's Day

The Lupercalia rite continued for centuries, even after the ascension of Christianity in Rome.

Pope Hilarius reportedly demanded Emperor Anthemius abolish it in 467 A.D and some 30 years later, Pope Gelasius tried to supplant it by declaring February 14 the Feast of Saint Valentine.

Saint Valentine by French painter Diodore Rahoult

An 1886 colored engraving of Saint Valentine from French painter Diodore Rahoult. According to tradition, Valentine died by beheading on Feb 14., 289 AD after marrying a Christian woman and Roman legionnaire. 

Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images

There were several Christians named Valentine executed by the Roman Emperor Claudius II.

The most famous was a third-century martyr imprisoned for secretly marrying Christian couples and helping persecuted believers and then reportedly executed on Feb. 14, 289 A.D.

In one early telling, the future saint restored sight to his jailer's blind daughter. Later, the legend grew to include a letter he gave the girl before his execution, reportedly signed "Your Valentine." 

The elements of fertility and romance already associated with Lupercalia made it a good fit for a day honoring a saint who supposedly married couples in secret.
In Medieval Europe, people also reportedly believed birds chose their mates on Feb. 14. In his book Parliament of Fowls, Chaucer imagined the goddess Nature paired off all the birds on "Seint Valentynes" day.

By the 15th century, the day became associated with the complex code of courtly love that came into vogue in Europe.

Read more: Build-a-Bear launches 'After Dark' series of naughty teddy bears for Valentine's Day
In 1400, King Charles VI of France established the Charter of the Court of Love, "as a distraction from a particularly nasty bout of plague," according to a post on the University of Oxford website. Members of the court would meet for dinner in Paris on Feb. 14 -- male guests were expected to perform an original love song, which would be judged by a panel of young women. 
The now-familiar traditions of flowers, candy and amorous notes (known as "Valentines") emerged in the 1600s.

Valentine's Day Card

A Valentine's Day card from 1909, depicting Cupid mending a broken heart.

Kean Collection/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Valentine's Day in the US

In the 1800s, as marriage in America shifted from more of an economic alliance toward a romantic relationship, the popularity of Valentine's Day soared. 

In some cases, people invented fictional ties to the past to imbue the holiday with a more hallowed (and respectable) legacy.

"There are all these nostalgic histories of Valentine's Day in this period of popular literature that invent historical stories that aren't necessarily accurate," historian Elizabeth White Nelson told Teen Vogue. "They get recycled; the same story of courtly love and the ways in which this is the ideal form of love."  

A Valentine's Day card from circa 1860

A Valentine's Day card from circa 1860.

Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images

Valentine's Day became even more commercialized in the mid-19th century: In 1850, Esther Howland, the daughter of a stationery store owner in Worcester, Massachusetts, began producing lace-bordered Valentine's cards with poems, roses, cherubs, and other imagery. At the height of her business, "The Mother of the American Valentine" was making $100,000 a year.

Then, in 1868, British chocolatier Cadbury sold its first box of chocolates shaped like a heart

Even a global pandemic couldn't stop people from expressing their devotion: In 2021, Americans spent $21.8 billion dollars on Valentine's Day shopping, according to Statista, up from $15.7 billion a decade prior.

The Valentine's Day heart

You don't have to be a cardiologist to know that the "heart" shape that's everywhere on Valentine's Day bears little resemblance to the actual organ pumping blood through your body.

paper heart

The stylized heart associated with Valentine's Day first emerged in the 14th century

Kinga Krzeminska

The heart has been viewed as the source of human love and emotion since antiquity. But the ancients had little understanding of its actual appearance.
Well into the Middle Ages, the heart was represented as looking "like a pine-cone," based on a description by second-century Greek physician Galen. Medieval artwork would often depict a young man offering his "cone-heart" to a maiden.

Jesus Sacred Heart

Close-up of a 19th century stained glass window depicting Jesus Christ with his heart and open hands at the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris. 

Colors Hunter/Chasseur de Couleurs

The shape we associate today with the Valentine's heart emerged in the 14th century: An illustration from poet Francesco da Barberino's Precepts on Love (Documenti d'Amore) features Cupid astride a horse whose neck is draped with the familiar symbol.

A symmetrical shape with a cleft in the middle also appeared in the French manuscript The Romance of Alexander from about 1340. It shows a woman receiving the love token from a suitor, who points to his chest to indicate its source.

In an illustration from Petit Livre d'Amour, a collection of love poems written by Pierre Sala in 1500, the author is shown dropping his heart into a flower for his mistress.

By the 1800s, mass-produced Valentine's Day cards made the heart symbol ubiquitous.
The "sacred heart" of Jesus has been part of Christian iconography for centuries, often depicted as flaming and pierced by a lance or encircled with a crown of thorns. In the 1530s, Christian reformer Martin Luther made a red heart within a white rose his personal seal.