The Tragedy at the Heart of Valentine’s Day

Samuel Sullivan

Valentine’s Day, also known as Saint Valentine’s Day, is a holiday celebrated on February 14th in many countries worldwide.

Today, it represents love, romance, and the exchange of cards, flowers, and chocolates.

However, the holiday has a tragic backstory that is often forgotten.
Saint Valentine — Steps to facial reconstructionPhoto byCicero Moraes — Wikimedia Commons


The origins of Valentine’s Day can be traced back to ancient Rome, where a pagan fertility festival known as Lupercalia was celebrated from February 13th to 15th.

During this festival, men would draw women’s names from a box and become their partners for the duration of the festival.

As with many pagan rituals, animal sacrifice was also involved.

The Christian church eventually banned Lupercalia in 496 A.D. Pope Gelasius I bestowed sainthood on Valentine and replaced Lupercalia with a celebration of Saint Valentine to separate the church’s practices from pagan beliefs.

It was similar to how the Christian Church handled the pagan festival that was the basis for Christmas.

The modern version of Valentine’s Day is named after Saint Valentine, a Christian martyr who lived in the third century.
Saint ValentinePhoto byWikimedia Commons


There are several stories about the life of Saint Valentine. However, the most commonly accepted is that he was a Roman priest who defied the orders of Emperor Claudius II.

According to History, Claudius II banned marriage for young men because he believed married men made less effective soldiers.

As the story goes, Saint Valentine defied the Emporer and continued to perform marriages secretly.

He was eventually caught and sentenced to death.

While in prison, he began corresponding with the jailer’s daughter. Whether it was love or another reason, he wrote her a letter signed, “From your Valentine,” on the day of his execution.

Valentine was beaten to death and then beheaded.

The date of his execution is believed to have been February 14th, 270 A.D.; how poetic.
To My ValentinePhoto byWikimedia Commons


The association of Valentine’s Day with romantic love began in the Middle Ages when the idea of courtly love became popular in Europe.

The first Valentine’s Day cards and love poems were exchanged during this time. The great medieval poet Geoffery Chaucer might have been responsible for the new traditions.

Although Shakespeare mentions Saint Valentine in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet, the story of Saint Valentine brings to mind another of his famous plays.

A forbidden marriage resulting in the martyrdom of star-crossed lovers?

I wonder if Saint Valentine’s story could have influenced the romantic tragedy, Romeo and Juliet.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that the holiday became commercialized, with the mass production of Valentine’s Day cards and the sale of chocolates and flowers.

According to the National Retail Federation, American consumers plan on spending nearly $26 billion on Valentine’s day. That’s about a $2 billion increase from 2022.

The same survey found 52% of American consumers plan to celebrate the holiday, and the average spend per person will be $192.80.

Final Thoughts

While Valentine’s Day has become a popular holiday celebrated worldwide, it’s important to remember the tragic backstory of the holiday.

Saint Valentine risked his life to perform marriages and died for his beliefs. What he stood for is still relevant today.

On December 13th, 2022, the Respect for Marriage Act, protecting same-sex and interracial marriages, became law in the U.S.

Although there is more work to be done for marriage equality, I would like to think Saint Valentine is looking down and smiling at the progress we are making.

Valentine’s Day should remind us that we can find inspiration in tragedy and, most importantly, that love can triumph over adversity.

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Lifelong learner & Teacher sharing insights on history, life, and beyond.

Bethesda, MD

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