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From Martyrdom to Matchmaking: The Real History of Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day, the setting looks something like this: Love is in the air and romance abounds. Look over there — is that Cupid with his arrow pointed right at you? 

Um … hello? Did you fall asleep? 

What if I told you that Valentine’s Day originated as a ceremonial feast to celebrate the decapitation of a third-century Christian martyr. 

Have I got your attention now? Good! 

The history of Valentine’s Day wasn’t always cards, flowers, and candy. So, how did Valentine’s day go from execution to amour? You’ll have to keep reading to find out! 

The Real History of Valentine's Day: Gift Baskets Overseas Blog

The History of Valentine’s Day as WE Know It

Before we get to the blood and gore — you know, the juicy stuff — let’s talk a little about the Valentine’s Day we’re all familiar with. 

Today, according to the Greeting Card Association, an estimated 145 million Valentine’s Day cards are sent each year, making Valentine’s Day the second largest card-sending holiday of all time (coming in second to Christmas). But the tradition of sending valentines dates all the way back to 17th century Britain. 

Back then, it was common for friends and lovers of all social classes to exchange small gifts or handwritten notes. Due to improvements in print technology, printed cards slowly rose to fame. By the early 19th century, the U.K. was producing significant numbers of ready-made valentines. They were beautiful, but also very expensive.

These commercialized cards caught the eye of Esther A. Howland of Worcester, Massachusetts. Howland, known as the “Mother of the Valentine,” came from a wealthy family that made its money running a successful stationery business. Esther thought she could produce cards of equal beauty, but for much less money. 

She hired a small crew of women and set up shop in her family’s home. The workers glued together layers of colors and textures. Gilded lace, wafer paper, and plenty of design talent made the cards stunning. The backsides featured a stamped red letter “H” to signify the designer. 

It was said that, during the 1850s, Howland earned $100,000 annually (about $3 million in today’s money). Though the prices varied, some of Howland’s handiwork could be purchased for as little as five cents, making cards affordable for all. She was also among the first employers to pay women a decent wage. Girl power!

At the tail end of the 1800s, Howland retired and The Whitney Company absorbed her business and went on to become the world’s largest manufacturer of valentine cards. A paper shortage in World War II forced the company to liquidate in 1942.

The Real History of Valentine's Day: Man in a suit made of hearts, dancing, on a red background

The REAL History of Valentine’s Day

In recent years, Valentine’s Day has been a time to celebrate romance with gifts, cards, kisses, etc, yet the origins of this day are much more dark and bloody.

The truth is, the exact connection is a little hard to pin down, but the best place to start is Ancient Rome and the feast of Lupercalia.

Ancient Romans were wild, y’all. 

The feast of Lupercalia ran from February 13 to 15. A ritual in a rural masculine cult during which half-naked young men sacrificed a goat and a dog. The list of festivities goes on, and includes a kind of matchmaking lottery. . Young men drew the names of women from a jar to find a partner for the holiday.  The couple would then be paired up for the duration of the festival, or longer if the match was right.

The holiday gets its name from St. Valentinus, who was beheaded in the 3rd century A.D. by Emperor Claudius II. St. Valentinus was a bishop of Terni in the province of Umbria, Italy in the 3rd century. According to legend, the Emperor banned marriage thinking unmarried men would make better soldiers. St. Valentinus’ answer to this was to arrange marriages in secret. This didn’t go over very well with the Emperor, and St. Valentinus was eventually thrown in jail and sentenced to death on — you guessed it — February 14th. 

Now, there is no factual evidence of this romantical folklore, however, historical accuracy did not matter much with medieval Christians. What they cared about were stories of miracles and martyrdoms and the physical remains or relics of the saint. In fact, several churches and monasteries around medieval Europe claimed to have bits of a St. Valentinus’ skull in their treasuries. One bishop in 11th-century Brittany actually used what was purported to be Valentine’s head to halt fires, prevent epidemics, and cure all sorts of illnesses, including demonic possession. There have been no reported claims of the saint’s bones making people randy, however. The flower-crowned alleged skull of St. Valentine is still exhibited in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome.

It’s unclear how these two origin stories came together. Many scholars suggest that the modern holiday is a Christian cover-up of the ancient Roman celebration. However, in 496 A.D. Pope Gelasius supposedly denounced the rowdy festival. Still, there is no evidence that the pope purposely replaced Lupercalia with the more sedate cult of the martyred St. Valentine.

It seems that the legend of the saint behind the holiday of love remains as mysterious as love itself. But, much like matters of the heart, St. Valentine and his reputation as the patron saint of love are not matters of verifiable history, but of faith.

A cute couple in love with him holding her up as she holds balloons on a red background

Hearts, Roses, and Chocolates: How You Can Spoil Your Sweetie This Valentine’s Day

So, it’s Valentine’s Day in the modern world and goat skins and bloody skulls are just not an acceptable gift for your significant other. We get it, that’s why we at Gift Baskets Overseas have all of your Valentine’s Day needs covered. 

Nothing says “I love you” more than a beautiful bouquet of red roses. But if cut flowers aren’t your style, perhaps a potted Orchid or Bonsai Tree will be the first-class ticket to their heart. I’m a big fan of potted plants because while cut flowers eventually wilt, a plant is forever and will continue to grow like my love for its gifter. 

No Valentine is complete without chocolate. Truffles, cookies, cakes… let them know how sweet they are. Better yet, take a break from the norm and send my personal favorite: a box of chocolate-covered strawberries. A delight that is sure to earn you huge brownie points. (Mmmm…. brownies.) 

And, what is the best libation to serve with strawberries? Why champagne of course! Throw a bottle on ice, light some candles, and create a romantic feast that will be remembered for years. 

As with any holiday, the gift you send should be more about the recipient than tradition. If you know they’d prefer a night out camping over bouquets, then that’s what you should do! Make this holiday about you and your love. 

You’ve already learned a lot today about the history of Valentine’s Day! Now what?

  • — If you enjoyed this blog, you might also like Valentine’s Day Survival Guide.
  • — Show a special person in your life how much you love them with a great Romantic Gift
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