The Surprising History Behind Valentine's Day

by Kat Kuehl
Palakorn Jaiman / EyeEm/EyeEm/Getty Images

If you're someone who has a hard time keeping track of important dates on the calendar (ahem, my husband, ahem), you're likely to wonder exactly when is Valentine's Day. I'll save you all of the suspense and wondering, and just get to the good stuff. Valentine's Day occurs on February 14 every year.

Admittedly, I've never really gotten that excited about all of the stuff that comes along with Valentine's Day. But, I will admit that it's a lighthearted, cheery holiday that comes at a time of year when we could all use one. With Presidents' Day being one of the few other holidays during this period of time, Valentine's Day is undoubtedly a bright spot in an otherwise bleak and long winter season.

However, I'm one of those people who's always seeking answers. Of course, I remember when Valentine's Day is. But, my next question is why? Why is it celebrated on February 14 year after year? What's so special about that date? Is there some historical event I'm not familiar with? Is that Cupid's birthday or something?

So, I scoured the internet to discover the reasoning behind this seemingly random date. Let's get to the heart of the matter (a little Valentine's pun — see what I did there?) and dig in to the history behind this day.

While searching, I realized something: there really isn't one definitive answer for why Valentine's Day is celebrated on February 14 year after year. There are, however, a ton of different theories about the date selection. So, in the interest of well-rounded journalism, let's take a look at a few of the most common ones. Buckle up and prepare for a history lesson.

The feast of Lupercalia

Let's go way back to ancient Rome, when the feast of Lupercalia was said to be observed February 13 through 15. The festival honored Lupercus, the god of shepherds, and was conducted under the supervision of priests, called Luperci.

The celebration always kicked off with the sacrifice of goats and a dog. Following the sacrifice, two Luperci were brought to the alter so that their foreheads could be touched with a bloody knife. The blood was then wiped off with wool dipped in milk. Even stranger? The Luperci were required to laugh all the way through.

After that, the party really got started with the sacrificial feast. The Luperci cut strips of hide from the sacrificial animals, and ran around the Palatine Hill striking women with these pieces of hide. Wondering what the connection to Valentine's Day and romance is here? Well, a slap from this hide was said to make a woman fertile. So, ladies, chivalry isn't really dead. In fact, it seems like it's come a long way. We're not getting hit with dead animal parts anymore.

The stories of St. Valentine

Of course, you've likely heard people reference this Catholic saint when discussing the roots of Valentine's Day. But, this is another piece of history that's still quite murky. Historians don't know for certain if there was one St. Valentine, or multiple by the same name. Plus, there are numerous different accounts of his deeds and accomplishments.

One common story says that St. Valentine was on house arrest with Judge Asterius. After discussing St. Valentine's faith, the judge wanted to test his luck. So, he brought his blind daughter to Valentine and told her that if he could restore her sight, he'd do anything for him. Valentine succeeded in restoring the child's vision, which resulted in the judge freeing all Christian inmates at Valentine's request.

A similar account says that Valentine was arrested for trying to convert people to Christianity. While imprisoned, he healed the jailer's daughter's vision. On the day of his execution, he left her a note signed "Your Valentine."

St. Valentine is also credited for secretly marrying couples so that husbands wouldn't have to go to war — which explains the romantic connection to the lovey dovey holiday we celebrate today.

Regardless of all of the different tales of St. Valentine, one thing is for certain — he definitely did exist. Archaeologists have discovered a Roman catacomb and an ancient church dedicated to him.

Valentine's Day is for the birds

If you look at medieval beliefs, many believed that birds selected their mates in the middle of February — particularly on February 14. Lovers were said to recite poetry and verses to each other in honor of the romantic day. And, the term "lovebirds" definitely makes a lot more sense now. Honestly, I like this historical background much more than sacrificial feasts and religious martyrs, so I think I'm going to stick with this one.

All in all, the history of why Valentine's Day is celebrated annually on February 14 is pretty unclear. So, which philosophy you choose to believe is totally up to you. The important thing is to mark the date on the calendar and celebrate with the one you love — goat sacrifices not required.

Images: Palakorn Jaiman / EyeEm/EyeEm/Getty Images; Giphy (5)