How did Valentine's Day start? The holiday's origins are actually pretty murky, and the stories of the origin vary from place to place.
Who Was St. Valentine?
There are several saints named Valentine in the Catholic religion, all of whom were martyred. One was on the Via Flaminia, the road that led northward out of Rome, on February 14, AD 296. However, there was initially no connection between the martyred St. Valentine and romance. In fact, the day was removed from the Catholic Calendar of Saints in 1969, since the church had no further information on Valentine aside from the location of his burial.
A later, most likely spurious, addition to the story of St. Valentine was that he wed young couples despite a decree from Emperor Claudius II prohibiting young soldiers from marrying. Another version of the story is that Valentine sent love notes from prison to the jailkeeper's daughter, signed "From your Valentine," as cards are often signed today.
The start of Valentine's Day can be traced back to the Lupercalia festival, celebrated in ancient Rome and banned in the fifth century by Pope Gelasius. Lupercalia was a fertility festival, celebrated in the spring. Young Roman men would parade around the city, whipping women with strips from the hides of sacrificed goats. The whippings were thought to protect against infertility and bad luck. Later, the young men would draw the names of available young women from a box. The name the young man drew would become his lover. Although the festival was celebrated in the spring, the word February comes from the word Februa, which referred to the strips of goat hide and means purification.
In his attempt to stop the Lupercalia festival, Gelasius deemed that St. Valentine was the saint of love. Gelasius also replaced the names of women in the lottery with names of saints, whom the young men would study during the upcoming year.
As with many of today's holidays, Valentine's Day history has its roots in pagan celebrations. February has been the month of "love" dating back to ancient Athens. "Gamelion," as the time between mid-January to mid-February was then called, was dedicated to the marriage between Zeus, the ancient god of thunder and sky, and Hera, the goddess of marriage.