Love written on heart-shaped cushions
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Valentine’s Day is a full 24 hours of love – but it wasn’t always this way.

Was Valentine's Day always this way?

Unlike its present observance, the presumed original celebration of Valentine’s Day was instead a day of bloody sacrifices and laughing priests.

The return of Valentine’s Day showers us all in pink glitter, candy hearts, love notes and fragrant flowers. Celebrated in North America as well as Britain, France and South Korea, among others that have picked up on the tradition, Feb. 14 is a momentous day for many relationships, romantic or not. However, unlike its present day observance, the presumed original celebration of Valentine’s Day was instead full of bloody sacrifices and laughing priests.

Lupercalia was a Roman holiday assumed to have begun in 6th century B.C., and held annually on Feb. 15. The celebration occurred as a way to honor Roman fertility god Lupercus, with the event entailing fertility rites and pairing women off to men by lottery. In addition to a feast, the main event was a ritual sacrifice.

A group of Roman priests, called Luperci, would begin the holiday by sacrificing, naked, one or two male goats as well as a dog. Two Luperci would then have the blood of the knife wiped off on their foreheads, followed by milk soaked wool to clean the blood. As this occurred, the Luperci were instructed to laugh.

The events were then paused for a feast before returning for a few concluding festivities. These included a lottery, where men could draw names of women to pair up with, as well as a chase. The Luperci sliced februa, or thinly cut strips, of goat hide from the sacrificed animals and proceeded to run around naked. They would attempt to hit women around town with the februa, and those that were hit were supposed to be rendered fertile.

The traditions of Lupercalia slowly faded through the years, with Roman priests donning more fabric and goats safe behind their fences. It wasn’t until late into the 5th century A.D. that Lupercalia and its festivities were forbidden by Pope Gelasius I. It is said that this was when Valentine’s Day was established.

The mysteries behind Valentine’s Day are like the ones in a chocolate box without a paper guide. Outside of Lupercalia, there are several other propositions as to how the holiday (derived from holy-day) came to be. Most of these theories focus on Saint Valentine, a 3rd-century Christian saint, who, in two versions of the story, was martyred on Feb. 14, 269 A.D.

In one iteration, Saint Valentine worked to wed couples together during a time where it was banned. Another supposes it was based on Saint Valentine Terni, a bishop. A third version refers to a love letter signed by a Saint Valentine. Many believe these stories can be combined and that Saint Valentine Terni was the true Valentine.

Valentine’s Day did not rise in popularity until the 1500s but the first record of the day came from a poem in 1375. Written by Geoffery Chaucer, “Parliament of Foules” stated, “For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day / Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.” In the 1700s, commercially printed cards began being sent out with depictions of flowers, hearts and Cupid, the Roman god of love. Birds also became a common depiction of the day with mating season in February. 

In the present day, many individuals celebrate Valentine’s Day with acts and gifts out of love. People commonly share candy and notes between one another, and children bring similar treats to exchange in classrooms.