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The dark origins of Valentine's Day

A drawing depicts the death of St. Valentine — one of them, anyway. The Romans executed two men by that name on Feb. 14 of different years in the third century.
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A drawing depicts the death of St. Valentine — one of them, anyway. The Romans executed two men by that name on Feb. 14 of different years in the third century.

Updated February 14, 2022 at 7:49 AM ET

Valentine's Day is a time to celebrate romance and love and kissy-face fealty. But the origins of this festival of candy and cupids are actually dark, bloody — and a bit muddled.

Though no one has pinpointed the exact origin of the holiday, one place to start is ancient Rome.

The Romans' celebrations were violent

From Feb. 13 to 15, the Romans celebrated the feast of Lupercalia. The men sacrificed a goat and a dog, then whipped women with the hides of the animals they had just slain.

The Roman romantics "were drunk. They were naked," Noel Lenski, now a religious studies professor at Yale University, told NPR in 2011. Young women would line up for the men to hit them, Lenski said. They believed this would make them fertile.

The brutal fete included a matchmaking lottery in which young men drew the names of women from a jar. The couple would then be, um, coupled up for the duration of the festival — or longer, if the match was right.

The ancient Romans may also be responsible for the name of our modern day of love. Emperor Claudius II executed two men — both named Valentine — on Feb. 14 of different years in the third century. Their martyrdom was honored by the Catholic Church with the celebration of St. Valentine's Day.

As the holiday spread, it evolved

Later, Pope Gelasius I muddled things in the fifth century by combining St. Valentine's Day with Lupercalia to expel the pagan rituals. But the festival was more of a theatrical interpretation of what it had once been. Lenski added, "It was a little more of a drunken revel, but the Christians put clothes back on it. That didn't stop it from being a day of fertility and love."

Around the same time, the Normans celebrated Galatin's Day. Galatin meant "lover of women." That was likely confused with St. Valentine's Day at some point, in part because they sound alike.

As the years went on, the holiday grew sweeter. Chaucer and Shakespeare romanticized it in their work, and it gained popularity throughout Britain and the rest of Europe. Handmade paper cards became the tokens du jour in the Middle Ages.

Eventually, the tradition made its way to the New World. The Industrial Revolution ushered in factory-made cards in the 19th century. And in 1913, Hallmark Cards of Kansas City, Mo., began mass-producing valentines. February has not been the same since.

How we celebrate now

Today, the holiday is big business. But that commercialization has spoiled the day for many. Helen Fisher, a sociologist at Rutgers University, said we have only ourselves to blame.

"This isn't a command performance," she said. "If people didn't want to buy Hallmark cards, they would not be bought, and Hallmark would go out of business."

And so the celebration of Valentine's Day goes on, in varied ways. Many will break the bank buying jewelry and flowers for their beloveds. Some will celebrate in a SAD (that's Singles Awareness Day) way, dining alone and bingeing on self-gifted chocolates — while others will find a way to make peace with singlehood in a society that wants everyone to partner up.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.