A Non-Hallmark History of Valentine’s Day

Alright, I’ll be honest. I’ve never been a big fan of Valentine’s Day. First of all, it’s too close to my birthday. It also doesn’t help that for many Valentine days, I was single. There are few things more annoying than watching everyone celebrate a day for lovers when you don’t have one yourself. I managed the pain by going to the store the next day, and enjoying the chocolates in the half-off bin that, like myself, got left behind on February 14.

Once I found myself a nice fellow and got married, I still didn’t warm up to Valentine’s Day. Something about the whole thing just felt off to me. The over priced flowers, the boxes of chocolate bigger than my head, the aisles and aisles of pink and red cards… I just couldn’t get into it.

Perhaps it was my inner senses tingling. Trying to tell me that, like most things in history, Valentines Day has a much darker side than pretty flowers and cards. So, I finally dug into it. As it turns out, I’m not the only one who’s had a streak of rotten luck on the biggest day for romance.


It all started with a man known as “St. Valentine of Rome.” A lot of his history remains cloudy. Some historians even believe that the “St. Valentine” we have come to love might be multiple saintly figures rolled into one, given all the fragmentary information out there. Be that as it may – here is the gist.

St. Valentine lived in Rome (or thereabouts) in the Third Century AD. At that time, the Roman emperor Claudius II had little use for the newer Christian religion, and he instead worshiped the art of warfare. He loved warfare so much he wanted all his forces committed to it, all the time. He especially hated when they got distracted by their wives and family commitments. Ready to do something about it, he made marriage illegal for soldiers. On paper, it looks like an easy fix, but love conquers all, and many of those soldiers already had a sweetheart. None were ready to trade their lady love for slings and arrows.

Enter the brave and the bold St. Valentine. Ever a preacher of love, he defied Claudius’s law and performed marriage ceremonies for any love birds who needed him. While he was at it, he gave shelter and aid to Christians facing persecution from the Roman Empire. Young lovers and Christian fugitives the countryside over kept him busy for quite some time.

Unfortunately, nothing that good stays secret. Word of Valentine’s activities eventually reached Emperor Claudius. In exchange for Valentine making love and not war, Claudius had him arrested and thrown into prison. While languishing in jail, he made the acquaintance (and some sources say took a fancy to) the jailer’s blind daughter Julia. He said fervent prayers for her healing, which according to some legends, miraculously restored her sight.

A miracle by the church’s standards, but it still wasn’t enough to sway Claudius from his decision to put Valentine to death. So, the doomed saint wrote a farewell to his friend Julia, and signed it – “Your Valentine.”  This is often considered the world’s first Valentine’s Day greeting, although written under not so lovable circumstances. Later, Valentine got dragged into a torture chamber where he was beaten, clubbed, and stoned. When none of that killed him, he was beheaded on February 14 and buried near the Via Flaminia.


St. Valentine’s violent martyrdom was honored in the typical Catholic Church fashion – by marking the day of his death as “St. Valentine’s Day.”  However, the church didn’t dare put a romantic spin on it. Because the only love connected with February 14 at the time was the Pagan holiday of Lupercalia. It involved a lot of drinking, and a match-making lottery where women put their names into jars, and young men drew the name of the woman that would be his “lover” for the duration of the festival (February 13-15).

In the fifth century, perhaps tired of all the revelry around February 14, Pope Gelasius I tried to expel Lupercalia by combining it with St. Valentine’s Day. At last embracing the love part of the idea, but expelling the drunken revelry and lottery-style hook ups.


The holiday we know today started emerging during the 14th and 15th centuries, with help from the famous writers Chaucer and Shakespeare. Their romantic love stories and poems gave birth to a new type of Valentine’s Day. By the Middle Ages, lovers were exchanging elaborate paper cards (some embroidered with real gold) and flowers on February 14.

The next big development came a few centuries later. Like the Industrial Revolution shaped so many things, it also transformed the day of St. Valentine. Paper cards became factory-made and more readily available.  The Hallmark Company of Kansas City, Missouri really blew up Valentine’s Day in 1913. They started big business in mass producing valentine’s greetings, candies, cute cuddly stuffed animals, and all other things valentines. February 14 has been aisles of pink and red at the grocery store ever since.

This year, I will at last be a willing participant in Valentine’s Day for the first time in… well… ever.  It’s never been my favorite holiday, but for some reason, knowing the history made me want to get in on it a little. A lot of the legend of St. Valentine has been clouded over with time and mystery.  The legend might be just that – a legend. But if any part of it is true, then someone died because he believed that love was worth celebrating. Perhaps I should honor his memory by giving it a try. We’ll see how it goes, but in the meantime, I wish all of you, no matter how you celebrate it – a very happy Valentine’s Day.



“The True Story of St. Valentine of Terni, Italy” – J. McDonald

“Celebrate Valentines Day” – National Geographic for Kids

NPR:  “The Dark Origins of Valentine’s Day” (https://www.npr.org/2011/02/14/133693152/the-dark-origins-of-valentines-day)

Wikipedia – “Valentine’s Day” and “St. Valentine”

“The Folklore of World Holidays” – R. Griffin & H. Shurgin

All photos by M.B. Henry.  For more flower photos, please visit my photo gallery. 

49 Comments on “A Non-Hallmark History of Valentine’s Day

  1. Wow – that was a ton of information on Valentine’s Day that makes me long for my days in the first grade when all I knew was that I would get a homemade valentine from a classmate, and they were extra special…Happy Valentine’s Day to you, too – however you choose to celebrate this year!

    • Haha! Glad I could at least stir up some happy childhood memories! 🙂 And yes grade school Valentine’s Day was the best. All that candy!

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it! I decided I just had to look into it to see what was really behind it all. I was most surprised by a lot of the things I found 🙂 Thanks for stopping by to give this a read!

  2. Excellent post. As an ex florist I had to research Valentine incase I was asked the history by customers. In my years, not one single person asked lol…

    They were more Interested in telling me about their current Valentine and why they were doing it💞💕

    It was quite romantic heating their stories. Just as many women buy for their men too💝

    I’m positive you will enjoy the day and look forward to next year.💌

    • Thank you! I’m quite sure you are right. My husband and I are going for a “relax together’ kind of theme. Nothing fancy, just spending some quality time together. I think it will be great. I bet as an ex-florist you were quite busy on Valentines! I bet you heard some fantastic stories 🙂

  3. Some stories started with a kiss and continued to marriage. Some for their loved one passed😣 most are too private to tell and some were absolutely halarious😄

    Good on you two… it’s all worth Valentine dying for Love💝 Enjoy

  4. This was very informative! i knew a little about this and some other legend about a massacre on Feb. 14th. I really liked the way you ended this with declaring the day worth celebrating if someone died for the sake of celebrating love. Awesome story! Hope you have a very happy Valentines Day with Joel. As always, thank you for sharing your interesting story!

  5. Thanks for a history lesson. Sometimes is good to hear how and when some holiday started, so we can look at it from a bit different perspective.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it 🙂 Also I couldn’t agree more, looking into something deeper might give us a better understanding and even appreciation.

  6. I’d read a little about the origins of Valentine’s Day, but you’ve enhanced my perspective considerably, MB. Thanks, and lots of strictly platonic love, Mitch. ;>)

    • LOL! Right back at ya! Glad you enjoyed the post and that it brought some new perspective.

  7. Great job with that post and thanks for sharing! I had heard bits and pieces of the history but never a good synopsis like yours! Besides..I share your sentiments that Valentine’s Day is a bit overdone in our culture, especially the amount we pay for some things! Though Im fine with cards and a treat–and knowing there is probably some truth to the sacrifice Valentine made for love…makes it more meaningful to celebrate.

    • I’m so glad you liked it and that it added some new insight. A happy Valentine’s day to you! We will see how it goes for us this year, but I suspect that like you we will stay on the non-overdone side 🙂

  8. MB Henry – Your right about Valentines Day. I think that it’s just a way of making money during the Winter months. My Wife and I don’t really celebrate this at all. You don’t need a special day to tell someone you love them. Buying gifts, candy, and jewelry can get way to expensive. My Loving Wife has way too many diamonds to get more!

    • I agree that every day can be a special day, and a day to tell someone you love them. My husband and I will celebrate it this year to give it a try, since neither of us have really done so before. We’ll see if we get a feel for it at all! 🙂 Thanks for stopping by and giving this a read!

    • Glad you enjoyed it. Yeah I had never heard of that lupercalia festival so that was interesting to learn about. Thanks for stopping by!

    • Thank you! Glad you enjoyed Valentine’s, sounds like it was very relaxing. Ours was pretty nice too. We went out to a local wine bar, and enjoyed a nice light meal. Then we went and got a couple’s massage. It was very relaxing!

  9. Wow what an interesting story. You did your homework and great research to shed more light and insight on this for all of is. I find it fascinating. Well done my dear. Always such a pleasure to come visit your blog. Xoxo

    • Well it’s always a pleasure having you visit 🙂 Glad you enjoyed the post 🙂 It always helps to add more perspective!

  10. I learned some fascinating new facts reading your St. Valentine post. Hallmark has certainly capitalized on the day but your V-Day celebration sounded perfect this year. 💕

    • It was indeed nice! Very relaxing and not over-hyped. Glad you stopped by and enjoyed the post 🙂 Hope your V-Day was good too!

    • Glad I could help! 🙂 It ended up being a pretty nice day for us. We’ll see about next year haha!

  11. I’ve never been a big fan of Valentine’s Day, either. My more recent complaints mostly concern the ridiculously elaborate Valentine’s box I am expected to make every year for my kids’ classroom parties. I’m not sure how this Pinterest nightmare of a tradition got started, but it’s one more reason I’m not a fan. Maybe I will attempt to make peace with the day next year. My oldest will finally be in middle school and I shouldn’t have to make any crafts.

    • Geesh. What happened to the simple days of just having them exchange valentine cards from the store with little heart candies in them? Here’s hoping you get a break from that next year!

    • Boy I hear ya. They bring it all out right after Christmas and it takes up half the grocery store! I do enjoy those candy conversation hearts though 🙂 thanks for stopping by and giving this a read

    • I’m glad you did so! Always happy to have you stop by 🙂

  12. Who knew? So did you celebrate by falling in love for 3 days while imprisoned? Ahh the romance haha. 😉

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