Home The tragic, unromantic history of Valentine’s Day
Last update on October 31, 2019
Written by Adam Nowek

The true meaning of Valentine’s Day takes a different light when you learn about its history. Who was Saint Valentine anyhow? Take a look at Valentine’s Day traditions around the world.

Oh, Valentine’s Day: the annual day of romance, roses, cards, hearts, chocolates, and true love. At least, that’s what we’ve come to know of it. But how did this romantic holiday begin? You may be surprised by the religious, mysterious, bizarre, and bloody origins of the now-commercialized and cheery day of love. What is the history of Valentine’s Day? Who was Saint Valentine?

Valentine’s Day is one of the most consumer-centric holidays of the year, with more than a billion cards sent annually, surpassing all other holidays except Christmas. But unlike many other holidays, there are a lot of unknown facts about the lovey-dovey holiday’s origins. In fact, some of the history of Valentine’s Day is nothing more than a confusing mix of age-old legends. So, what should be the true meaning of Valentine’s Day?
Expatica Dating

Who was Saint Valentine?

There is lots of confusion on which Saint Valentine the holiday refers to. The Catholic Church has three saints with the name Valentine, and it is unclear which of the three is the Valentine responsible for the original Saint Valentine’s Day celebrations.
The Christian Martyr's Last Prayer (1863–1883) by Jean-Léon Gérôme. The painting depicts Saint Valentine ministering during persecutions of Christians in the Roman Empire.
The Christian Martyr’s Last Prayer (1863–1883) by Jean-Léon Gérôme. The painting depicts Saint Valentine ministering during persecutions of Christians in the Roman Empire.
Legend claims Valentine was a priest who secretly performed Christian-based marriages for soldiers and their lovers during the marriage-forbidden war times of secular Emperor Claudius II’s rule. Saint Valentine was discovered and imprisoned in a torture-ridden Roman jail, where he fell in love with a mysterious girl (believed to be his prosecutor’s daughter). He sent her a love letter signed ‘from your Valentine’ right before his execution, thus originating the romantic sign-off still widely used today. Many are unsure of the truth of this legend. Nonetheless, it portrays Saint Valentine as a compassionate hero of romance, perhaps explaining why his memory has grown in popularity over time.

History of Valentine’s Day: Pagan or Christian?

Valentine’s Day history has somewhat blurred origins. Why is Valentine’s Day in mid-February? While the date is meant to honor Saint Valentine’s death and burial, which supposedly occurred in mid-February around 270 AD, some historians believe the date could reflect the Catholic Church’s attempt to replace the ancient Pagan celebration of Lupercalia — a fertility festival for the pagan agricultural god Faunus — with a Christian event in memory of the saint. At this pagan event, which traditionally took place on 15 February, Roman men allegedly drew the names of Roman women from a jar to be coupled with during the festival, often leading to true love, or so the story goes. Lupercalia became officially outlawed in the late 400s when Pope Gelasius replaced it by deeming 14 February as Saint Valentine’s Day. In short, it could be said that the meaning of Valentine’s Day commemorates Saint Valentine’s brutal and bloody three-part execution – beating, stoning, and beheading – because of his secret support of Christian marriages. 14 February symbolizes the date he died or possibly because Christians needed to replace the pagan Lupercalia.

So, why the romance?

Up to this point, we see the holiday had no official romantic connotations, other than the implications that Saint Valentine himself was a romantic and that pagans drew lovers during Lupercalia. Over the coming centuries the holiday began to pick up romantic trends — Middle Age England and France, for instance, considered February 14th the first day of birds’ mating season, adding to the date’s theme of ‘love’. Poets such as Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare further romanticized the holiday by writing about Valentine’s Day in love-stricken ways.

Why Cupid and Valentine’s Day?

The history of Valentine’s Day wouldn’t be complete without Cupid. But what’s the tie between Cupid and Valentine’s Day?
Psyché et l'amour (1626–1629) by Simon Vouet. The painting portrays a sleeping Cupid, one of the major symbols of Valentine's Day.
Psyché et l’amour (1626–1629) by Simon Vouet. The painting portrays a sleeping Cupid, one of the major symbols of Valentine’s Day.
Before Cupid was a chubby little angel who shot love arrows, he was the handsome Greek god of love Eros. It was the Romans who turned him into what has become modern-day Cupid. Greek mythology is unclear on how Eros was conceived, but he was known for both his masculinity and his manipulation of both gods and mortals by toying with their emotions through the power of his golden arrows. There is also a late antique myth of Cupid and Psyche. According to the legend, Psyche was condemned to wander the earth trying to win Cupid back after he abandoned her.

The first Valentine’s Day greeting cards

The history of Valentine’s Day cards is a more modern story. Though vocal greetings were exchanged during the holiday’s fifth-century origins, writing and sending cards didn’t become common practice until the 1400s when the Duke of Orléans sent one to his wife from the Tower of London’s prison. King Henry V soon joined the trend by hiring a writer to write a Valentine’s card for Catherine of Valois. When Valentine’s Day became more popular in England in the 1600s and the United States in the 1700s, hand-written greetings, as well as small gifts, became more common. The aptly-named Mother of the Valentine, Esther Howland, is credited with the first homemade valentine cards, using elaborate lace, tapes and photos called scrap. Modern printing largely replaced the hand-written tradition in the 1900s; in 1913, Hallmark began their first batch of mass-produced valentine’s cards.

Valentine’s Day around the world

Which countries celebrate Valentine’s Day? While many countries have typical celebrations and the typical traditions of cards, flowers, chocolates, and fancy dates, some countries have some very unique traditions to celebrate the romantic holiday; if you’re dating someone from a different culture than yours, your valentine might approach the day differently. Valentine's Day traditions around the world Add some international flair to your romantic ideas by see how the world celebrates Valentine’s Day.

Valentine’s Day in Belgium

As the holiday is not as commercialized in Belgium, the Belgians aren’t known for being especially festive on the day itself. But, as the chocolate capital of the world, it’s no surprise chocolate features highly on the gift list, even if purchased at the last minute. Dating rules in Belgium, however, is where you might find more differences.
How to say ‘I love you’ in Belgium: Ik zie je graag or Ik hou van jou (Dutch), or je t’aime (French) How to say ‘Happy Valentine’s Day’ in Belgium: just “Happy Valentine’s Day”

Valentine’s Day in Denmark

The Danish make their Valentine’s Day their own by sending folded white paper flowers known as snowdrops. In addition, they add humor to their hand-written cards, as well as keep them anonymous to keep you guessing about your secret admirer.

Valentine’s Day in France

The French have been celebrating Valentine’s Day in some form since the Middle Ages. It is still a very popular, commercialized celebration today. In fact, more than 70% of the French take part in the day of love, spending an average of €50 on gifts such as flowers or jewellery. See what other French dating rules you need to brush up on.
How to say ‘I love you’ in French: Je t’aime How to say ‘Happy Valentine’s Day’ in French: Bonne St-Valentin

Valentine’s Day in Germany

Germans only started celebrating Valentinstag shortly after the Second World War, from American soldiers stationed in the country. Cards are not as common in Germany; instead, Germans prefer more elaborate love declarations. A common German Valentine’s tradition is to give a heart-shaped gingerbread cookie. The cookie is complete with an affectionate icing message and a long ribbon so that the gift can be worn before eaten. Learn more about dating in Germany.
How to say ‘I love you’ in German: Ich liebe Dich How to say ‘Happy Valentine’s Day’ in German: Alles gute zum ValentinstagSchönen Valentinstag, or Happy Valentinstag

Valentine’s Day in Japan

On this particular day, Japanese dating strays away from traditional gender ideas. Instead, women first give chocolates to the men. Much thought goes into whether it should be giri chocolate (for friends and acquaintances) or honmei chocolate (for your true love). Women in Japan receive gifts exactly one month later on White Day. On this day, men give women white chocolate or other tokens.

Valentine’s Day in the Netherlands

It’s perhaps no surprise that the tulip-loving nation’s celebrations have flowery origins. While Valentijnsdag didn’t become widely-celebrated until the 1990s, its origins stem from flower day. The National Organization for Florists declared this day as a way to sell more flowers locally versus exporting them all on the romantic holiday. Thus, a card and flowers are still popular gifts for the Dutch, though these aren’t the only common gifts when dating Dutch men and women.
How to say ‘I love you’ in Dutch: Ik hou van jou How to say ‘Happy Valentine’s Day’ in Dutch: Fijne valentijnsdag

Valentine’s Day in the Philippines

Perhaps the most contrasting tradition occurs in the Philippines, where a Valentine’s Day trend has started of mass weddings. Hundreds of couples gather in the same place to either exchange or renew their vows. In 2015, more than 700 couples took part in the new tradition. Because on the day of romance, why not make it a group affair?

Valentine’s Day in Portugal

While the Portuguese celebrate Valentine’s Day similar to many other countries, they have one unique tradition: it’s custom to send a woman a gift basket of gourmet treats, and to send a man a basket of their favourite liqueurs. 
How to say ‘I love you’ in Portuguese: Eu te amo or eu te quero How to say ‘Happy Valentine’s Day’ in Portuguese: Feliz Dia dos Namorados

Valentine’s Day in South Africa

In South African culture, women aren’t shy on Valentine’s Day. Rather, they take after the ancient Romans by mimicking Lupercalia traditions. Instead of drawing names, they pin the name of their crush to their shirt for all to see; they do this whether the person knows it already or not.
How to say ‘I love you’ in Afrikaans: Ek het jou lief How to say ‘Happy Valentine’s Day’ in Afrikaans: Gelukkige Valentynsdag

Valentine’s Day in Spain

Spaniards celebrate Saint Valentine’s Day similar to elsewhere. However, they also have local festivals with similar themes. Valencia, for example, celebrates Saint Dionysius Day (the Spanish patron saint of love) on 9 October by hosting festive parades and gifting women with traditional Mocadora marzipan figurines. In Catalonia, locals celebrate Saint George Day, also known as El Día de la Rosa or El Día de la Llibre (the day of the rose or book), on 23 April by gifting roses and books. In light of the commercialism surrounding these holidays, some Spaniards jokingly call the holdiay Día de El Corte Inglés, a popular Spanish department store. See what else to expect when dating the Spanish.
How to say ‘I love you’ in Spanish: Te amo or te quiero How to say ‘Happy Valentine’s Day’ in Spanish: Feliz Dia de San Valentin

Valentine’s Day in the United Kingdom

Wales make their Valentine’s Day celebrations unique not by commemorating Saint Valentine, but rather their own Saint Dwynwen. Dwynwen is the Welsh patron saint of lovers; Wales celebrates this saint on 25 January. On this day, love spoons replace the cards; this comes from an old Welsh tradition where men would hand-carve elaborate wooden spoons for their lovers with meanings behind each carved symbol.