To skeptics, Valentine’s Day is seen as a heteronormative, Christian-adjacent holiday manufactured by corporations to sell candy and jewelry. The truth about how we’ve come to celebrate Valentine’s Day today is far more compelling, albeit cloudy.
It’s widely understood that the Catholic feast day honors St. Valentine, a priest who was executed after marrying Christian couples in secret during Roman persecution. This is likely part-legend, seeing as there are two other martyred St. Valentines connected to the holiday and no remaining records of the saint. Throughout the centuries, countless embellishments were added to the story of St. Valentine.
Because of this legend and its exaggeration throughout history, the modern holiday has always been closely associated with Christianity and the Catholic feast day. But the placement of the day in the middle of February might have pagan roots. Some historians claim February 14 was chosen for the feast day because it was the date of the death or burial of St. Valentine. But the date was likely chosen in an effort to Christianize the Roman fertility festival of Lupercalia, which was outlawed by Pope Gelasius I in the fifth century. Lupercalia took place on February 15.
Loved ones have been writing each other Valentines since as early as the 1400s. The earliest known written Valentine was sent from Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife Bonne d’Armagnac in 1415 while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. It was a love poem that referred to his wife as his sweet Valentine. The tradition of sending Valentines to loved ones became popular in Anglo-Saxon societies around this time, but the Industrial Revolution helped cement the day as a quintessential marketable holiday.
The celebration of Valentine’s Day veered away from handwritten, heartfelt love notes after printing became widespread. Chocolates, flowers and printed cards with cookie-cutter phrases about love and friendship were now exchanged, and thus began the inevitable commercialization of the holiday.
Worldwide, Valentine’s Day is an opportunity for celebrating all kinds of love, although it seemingly began as a holiday for straight romantic partners in a Christian context. It is a day where partners, friends and family can show affection and love to one another in the best way: a handmade Valentine.