Valentine’s Day, annual holiday honoring lovers. It is celebrated on February 14 by the custom of sending greeting cards or gifts to express affection. The cards, known as valentines, are often designed with hearts to symbolize love.
The holiday probably derives from the ancient Roman feast of Lupercalis (February 15), also called the Lupercalia. In an annual rite of fertility, eligible young men and women would be paired as couples through a town lottery. Briefly clad or naked men would then run through the town carrying the skins of newly sacrificed goats dipped in blood. The women of the town would present themselves to be gently slapped by the strips and marked by the blood to improve their chances of conceiving in the coming year.
As Christianity came to dominance in Europe, pagan holidays such as Lupercalia were frequently renamed for early Christian martyrs. In 496 Pope Gelasius officially declared February 14 to be the feast day of two Roman martyrs, both named Saint Valentine, who lived in the 3rd century. Neither Saint Valentine seems to have an obvious connection to courtship or lovers.
Despite attempts by the Christian church to sanctify the holiday, the association of Valentine’s Day with romance and courtship continued through the Middle Ages. In medieval France and England it was believed that birds mated on February 14, and the image of birds as the symbol of lovers began to appear in poems dedicated to the day. By the 18th century it was common for friends and lovers to exchange handwritten notes on Valentine’s Day. Printed cards had largely replaced written sentiments by the 19th century. In 1840 Esther Howland of Worcester, Massachusetts, created the first line of mass-produced Valentines for sale. Today, Valentine’s Day is second only to Christmas as the most popular card-sending holiday.