The ancient Romans held the feast of Lupercalia around February 13 to 15. Lupercalia was a festival with a dual purpose. The Romans celebrated Faunus, their god of fertility, and paid tribute to Romulus and Remus, whom they recognized as the founders of Rome. The festival included the sacrifice of a goat and a dog at the cave where Romulus and Remus were supposedly raised by a she wolf. The pelts of the slain animals were then torn into strips and the men would take these strips and use them to slap the surrounding fields of crops and the women who willingly (some not so willingly, I’m certain) ran through the streets. The gesture was believed to make both the fields and the women more fertile in the coming year.
The festival also included a lottery where the names of single women were placed in a large urn. The single men would select a name from the urn and be paired with that maiden for the remainder of the festival (some sources say for the coming year). Some of the pairings resulted in marriage.
The religious origins of the holiday sprout from the story of a Catholic Priest by the name of Valentine. The Roman Emperor Claudius II observed married men were less likely to willingly leave their wives and join the army to go off to war. His solution was to outlaw marriage. But laws can never trump human emotion and young men continued to fall in love. Valentine realizing the injustice of Claudius’ decree, continued to perform marriages for the young lovers. He was arrested and sentence to death.
While in prison, he was attended to by the jailors daughter, with whom he reportedly fell in love. He would write her love letters and on the day of his death, he signed his last letter to her, “From Your Valentine.” Valentine was recognized by the church as a martyr and was eventually given the status of a saint.
In the very early 6th century, Pope Gelasius outlawed Lupercalia. Knowing the celebration was deeply ingrained in the roman population, he replaced it with a celebration of St. Valentine, the priest martyred for the cause of love. Still, it wasn’t until the Middle Ages when writers such as Shakespeare and Chaucer began to write about Valentine’s Day, equating it with love, that the holiday became romanticized. Finally, in 1913, Hallmark Cards began offering a mass produced line of greeting cards celebrating Valentine’s Day. The holiday has grown in popularity ever since with annual sales somewhere in the neighborhood of $19 billion.