Asked by Godfrey Franecki Valentine's DayHolidays and Traditions
Was Valentine's Day created by greeting card companies?
I’ve always heard this, but it seems a little too evil-corporationy to me. It has to have purer origins, right?
February 14, 2020 8:29PM
On one hand, I’ll quell your fears: Greeting card companies didn’t create Valentine’s Day—they simply cashed in on an established holiday. But about those purer origins you seek…can’t really help you there, boss. The history of the holiday is a murky, bloodsoaked lake.
The concept of a passion-oriented tradition in mid-February dates back to ancient Rome with the Lupercalia festival. From Feb. 13–15, drunken (and potentially naked) Roman men would sacrifice goats and dogs, then take to the streets to whip women with strips of the sacrificial hides. This was supposed to increase their fertility. How romantic—err, at least Roman.
Meanwhile, Roman Emperor Claudius II executed two Christian men named Valentine on separate Feb. 14s in the third century. Legend has it that one of the men, before his beheading, wrote a note to a woman and signed it “from your Valentine.” There doesn’t appear to be much truth to that part of the story, but in the murky lake of legend, does it really matter?
In the late fifth century, Lupercalia was struck from the Roman calendar in an effort to eliminate pagan traditions. St. Valentine’s Day, however, was added to the calendar in 496 A.D. to honor the third-century martyrs. Perhaps in the absence of Lupercalia in mid-February, people began associating fertility, and eventually pure love, with Valentine’s Day. By the Middle Ages, Chaucer was romanticizing the holiday in his poems; Shakespeare followed suit a few hundred years later. Eventually, romantic Europeans were hand-making cards to give to their true loves on Feb. 14.
Then, yes, in the 19th and 20th centuries, greeting card companies made absolute boatloads of cash by making it incredibly easy for said romantics.