Chocolates. Wine. Romance. These are common elements of modern Valentine’s Day, but they’re a far cry from the holiday’s origins more than 2,000 years ago, when the holiday was first marked as a festival of breaking up with long-term boyfriends.
What we know as Valentine’s Day was celebrated by ancient pagans after the midwinter festival of Imbolc. The “Galenalia” festival was dedicated to Minerva, Roman goddess of wisdom, trade, and recognizing that being single is better than staying with a dead-end guy.
The worst of the winter had passed and women no longer needed to rely on a man as a source of life-saving body heat at night. Mothers and daughters would gather their boyfriends’ animal pelts, set them on fire, and feast on winter squashes and root vegetables until the fires burned out.
Thanks to the writings of Catullus and other Latin poets of the late Roman Republic, we know that women would celebrate Galenalia by leaving their homes for weeks at a time, traveling together on “gal-cations,” apparent sojourns in search of spiritual renewal following the death of old relationships. To the north, Iron Age Celts placed bouquets of flowers on the graves of sacrificed boyfriends.
In the 4th Century A.D., right when Christianity was starting to heat up, Pope Julius I sought to establish a new holy day to memorialize not one but several saints named Valentinus who were all brutally martyred in different, inspiring ways. He wisely chose to adopt and absorb the traditions of Galenalia as part of the new feast day, assigned to February 14th on the Julian calendar. This resulted in the short-lived transition holiday “Minervalentines’s Day” which became “Galentine’s Day” which became the “Valentine’s Day” of modern parlance.
Valentine’s Day was popularly embraced, but over the years church leaders worked to change the focus from pagan breakup customs. They downplayed dumping or sacrificing boyfriends, especially by the Middle Ages when the crusades were becoming a real PR fiasco. Instead, religious tracts encouraged women to “get back out there, mingle, not look for anything serious, necessarily, but be open to having fun.”
In later years, breaking up with boyfriends would actually be condemned as heresy, which historians attribute to the church’s desire to propagate as much as possible in the face of massive plague-related personnel losses.
In 14th Century England, flower production skyrocketed as agricultural practices advanced, and florist’s apprentice Geoffrey Chaucer scrambled to increase market demand, claiming that giving flowers to your lovers on Valentine’s Day was the highest form of courtly love and also warded off Saint Valentine’s Malady, epilepsy. In the Canterbury Tales, the Wife of Bath actually tells her boyfriend that a “magyk natureel” can undo a “mayde abood fornicacioun” with a gift of “fleurs.” Clever product placement indeed.
Chaucer was a genius businessman and his plan worked, sparking a worldwide cultural and commercial phenomenon. Flower sales took off, epilepsy rates were unchanged, and Valentine’s Day became a holiday for sexing instead of ex-ing.
In fact, Valentine’s Day became the least appropriate day of the year to break up with your long-term boyfriend — the opposite of what the pagans originally intended! How few couples at prix-fixe dinners know that the tradition of trading heart-shaped boxes of chocolate comes from a time when pagan women ripped out the actual hearts of boyfriends and handed them back and forth hot-potato style. It’s surprising what a look back at history can reveal.
What would the ancient pagans think if they saw us today on February 14th, exchanging pink trinkets and confections, crepe paper and balloons, just lovers loving love? They’d probably think we recently completed a new henge, since that’s actually how they celebrated henge construction. Neat!