If Saint Valentine were to come back to life today, one of the things he would find most confusing is how his name became associated with the celebration of love. In fact, according to Christian myth, there were two men called Valentine who were martyred on February the 14th. If they came back to life, they would certainly be surprised to find that they had merged into a single identity!


Since the Valentines were both Roman citizens, it would be relatively easy to explain to them that the celebration of their sainthood has become the modern-day equivalent of the feast of the Lupercalia. This Roman festivity was held in mid-February and it celebrated the arrival of spring, a time associated with fertility and love. The feast included gifts, but it also had a tradition of forming couples by lottery.


As with many of our holidays, the Lupercalia was given a Christian substitute in the late Roman empire. In the 5th century, Pope Gelasius I abolished this pagan feast. We know that its Christian substitute was present during the Middle Ages, and we find it mentioned in the works of classic English authors such as Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare. In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, Ophelia told the Prince of Denmark:

Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s day,
All in the morning betime, 
And I a maid at your window, 
To be your Valentine. 

“Mañana es el día de San Valentín,
y muy de madrugada
yo que soy doncella, junto a tu ventana
seré tu Valentina”.


In those days, it was believed that birds started to mate on February the 14th. It seems that it was also at this stage that handmade cards started to be given to the object of one’s affections. This part of the celebration became really popular with the beginning of the modern age, when more and more people learnt how to read and write. In the United States, Valentine cards started to be mass-produced in the mid-19th century, marking the popularisation of the celebration. At around the same time, the Cadbury chocolate company started to sell heart-shaped chocolate boxes in Britain.


Nowadays, romantic gifts are given on February the 14th, and the cards we send mark one of the rare occasions when we still use our hands to express our emotions on paper. It has also spread all over the world, and is hugely popular in South Korea, Mexico and the Philippines.


In a twist that the original Valentines would find ironic, an old pagan Roman practice has gained increased presence on this day: Cupid, the playful god of desire and attraction in the classical world, is now shooting his arrows in cards all over the globe.