The History Behind Why We Celebrate Valentine’s Day
People have been sending Valentines since the year 269 A.D.
Whether you spend the day celebrating your gal pals or cooking a romantic dinner with your partner, Valentine's Day is all about love. But why do we celebrate February 14 with cards, flowers, and chocolates—and what does St. Valentine have to do with it all?
As it turns out, St. Valentine was a real person, credited with sending the first-ever valentine in the third century. We dug into the history of the holiday so you can read up on the sweet traditions before you send flowers to your sweetie and mail your valentine cards. Who knows—they may inspire a few new Valentine's Day traditions for you and your loved ones.
When Is Valentine's Day?
Valentine's Day is always celebrated on the 14th day of February, so it falls on a different day of the week each year. This year, Valentine's Day is on Sunday, February 14, 2021.
Who Was St. Valentine?
There are multiple saints named 'Valentine' that appear throughout history, but only one is credited with starting the romantic origins of the holiday we know today. The story goes that in the year 269 A.D., a Roman priest named Valentinus was in jail and ordered to be executed. His last act before he died was writing a love letter to the woman who frequently came to visit him while he was imprisoned. He signed the letter, "From your Valentine," and from then on it has been considered the very first Valentine's Day card in history. Valentinus died on February 14, 269 A.D., and several hundred years later Pope Gelasius declared his death date would be known as St. Valentine's Day.
The History of Valentine's Day
While St. Valentine lived in ancient Rome, the holiday actually combines both Christian and ancient Roman traditions—but it didn't begin as a day filled with cards and flowers.
In the fourth century, a celebration called Lupercalia was celebrated on February 15. On that day, it's said that Roman priests would sacrifice an animal they believed to be associated with fertility (typically a goat). That evening, all the single women in the area would come and place their names in a large urn; names were then drawn by all the eligible bachelors, and typically the couples would decide to get married.
Two centuries after Valentinus wrote his love letter in 269 A.D., the celebration of Lupercalia was outlawed. At the end of the fifth century, Pope Gelasius effectively declared February 14 to be St. Valentine's Day, merging the two holidays.
Because the holiday came to be associated with the marriage rituals of Ancient Rome, it's believed that this is when the holiday took on a romantic meaning—but it wasn't celebrated with cards and gifts until almost 1,000 years later. In the early 1800s, Valentine's Day cards began to be mass-produced in Britain and the United States, and in the early 1900s, the Hallmark company was founded.
People often refer to Valentine's Day as a "Hallmark holiday," and there's some truth behind the nickname; the Hallmark company was actually instrumental in creating the holiday we know and love today. They created some of the first affordable Valentine's Day cards in the United States, and as the mail system became more efficient and less expensive, people began sending cards—which eventually led to sending flowers, gifts, and other items as well.
Today, Valentine's Day is celebrated in the United States, Canada, Britain, Mexico, France, and Australia. And while we certainly still do send greeting cards to celebrate (these are our favorite funny Valentine's Day cards), it's now customary to share flowers, chocolates, candy, and gifts on the holiday as well. According to the National Retail Federation, Americans spent more than $20 billion on Valentine's Day last year, and the NRF predicts this year spending will increase to more than $27 billion. That's a lot of heart-shaped chocolate boxes!
So as you choose your card and gift this year, remember the sentiment of the very first valentine written by St. Valentine himself—while gifts are a popular choice, a love note to your special someone can be just as meaningful.