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Statue of Saint Valentine

8 romantic facts about the history of Valentine's Day

As it turns out, Valentine's Day isn't all red roses, chocolates and teddy bears, but it also known for the death of a famous explorer, vinegar Victorian cards and the Taj Mahal

Image: Saint Valentine was a priest who lived during the third century AD | Stefania Valvola /

The world marks Valentine’s Day every year on 14th February. The day is synonymous with love and affection, as amorous couples exchange gifts and enjoy romantic meals or excursions together.

However, did you know the day is also linked with naked whipping, love spoons and romantic sinks? Read on to find out more.

1. Valentine’s Day has pagan roots

Whilst Valentine’s Day is named after Saint Valentine, a priest who lived during the third century, the day does not have its roots in Christian tradition but rather in paganism.

Many historians believe the day originated from the Roman pagan festival of fertility called Lupercalia, which was held on 15th February every year. The event can best be surmised by animal sacrifice, random coupling and the whipping of women…not exactly the stuff we’d associate with romance.

Saying that, Roman women welcomed the lashings, which were carried out by naked men running through the streets of Rome. Why? The Romans believed that the thongs the men used to whip would make childless women more fertile, whilst blessing pregnant women with the gift of an easy birth.

2. Many famous people have been born on Valentine’s Day

With just 365 days in the year and thousands of years of human history, it’s no surprise that many notable people have been born on St Valentine’s Day. In fact, several Black Civil Rights activists share 14th February as their birthday.

One of which was Frederick Douglass who was a 19th century ex-slave who became one of the most prominent abolitionist leaders of his time. Although there is no record of his birth, Douglass chose Valentine’s Day as his birthday because, as a child, his mother called him her ‘little Valentine’.

Christopher Latham Sholes was born on this day in 1819. Sholes was an American inventor and is credited as being the creator of the typewriter.

Jimmy Hoffa, the famous American union leader of the Teamsters who had links to organised crime, was also born on Valentine’s Day 1913. Hoffa disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 1975.

3. Valentine’s Day has a bloody history

14th February has seen its fair share of era-defining events, many of which seem opposite to what the day represents.

Up first is Saint Valentine himself. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the saint of romance would have been given a befittingly affectionate send-off. The truth of the matter couldn't be further from the case.

Valentine had been conducting clandestine marriages, directly disobeying the orders of Roman Emperor Claudius II who’d recently outlawed them. For his crimes, Valentine was badly beaten and then decapitated.

One of Britain’s most famous explorers, Captain James Cook, died on Valentine’s Day in a similarly gruesome manner. After becoming the first European to discover the Hawaiian Islands, Cook decided to kidnap the king of the native islanders.

Things didn’t go to plan and Cook was beaten over the head with a club, stabbed to death, then disembowelled and part-cooked, in order for his flesh to be removed from his bones.

4. Commercialisation made Valentine’s Day

Whilst Valentine’s Day has its roots dating back thousands of years, the modern-day popularity of the occasion can be single-handedly credited to the sending of cards. And for that, we have Esther A. Howland of Massachusetts to thank.

Howland was the first person to start a successful Valentine's card business at the end of the 1840s. Her modest version of the more ornate and expensive cards that were in the UK were an instant hit. Howland’s business was soon turning a profit in the hundreds of thousands.

Then in 1916, Hallmark got in on the act and began printing Valentine’s Day cards from steel die engravings. They were soon producing 700 cards per hour and the rest, as they say, is history.

5. The Victorians loved it

Every year, Victorian Britain came alive on 14th February. To say they loved Valentine’s Day would be an understatement. In fact, postmen received special meal allowances to keep their energy levels up during the period surrounding the day.

People in Victorian Britain would often handmake their cards, adding personal embellishments to get their romantic messages across. However, they didn’t just stop at feelings of love, they also sent cards to people they disliked.

Known as vinegar Valentines, they were a popular tradition that allowed the Victorians to anonymously vent at someone they disliked. Adorned with sour poems or unflattering imagery, the cards called out people for their behaviour. Drunks, scrooges or scandalous flirts were often popular targets.

Speaking of flirting, how a woman in Victorian Britain held her gloves spoke volumes. It was a subtle and intimate way of flirting or communicating intentions.

6. Quirky traditions from around the world

Whilst Valentine's Day might be the most well-known celebration of love, across the world different countries and cultures all have unique ways of honouring romance.

Welsh Valentine’s Day, known as St Dwynwen’s Day, falls in January and it sees lovers gift one another with love spoons. These intricate handcrafted cutlery items can carry hidden messages depending on their design and patterns.

In South Korea, Valentine's Day is not just on 14th February, but rather every month. Whilst in Valencia, the Feast of San Dionisio is celebrated on 9th October and honours the patron saint of lovers. Men gift their romantic partners with a silk scarf filled with decorated marzipan treats called Mocaorà. Women keep the scarves to show how long they’ve been with their partner.

7. Love created one of the Seven Wonders of the World

Sometimes a card, chocolates or flowers just don’t cut it. Sometimes you need to build a massive monument to truly express your feelings of love. That’s exactly what Emperor Shah Jahan thought when he ordered the construction of the Taj Mahal in Agra, India.

Now regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the ivory-white mausoleum was constructed around 1653 at a cost estimated to be over $1 billion in today’s money. It housed the body of Jahan’s late wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who’d died giving birth to their 14th child in 1631.

8. Medieval courtship involved the gifting of sinks

Ever wondered how people fell in love during the Dark Ages? Whilst Medieval marriages tended to be negotiations surrounding a dowry, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t still room for genuine love.

Love tokens were commonly exchanged between courting couples in Medieval England. A 12th-century author known as Andreas Capellanus wrote a guide to courtly love entitled De Amore. In it, he documented several popular love tokens that included purses, rings, mirrors, and washbasins. Who knew a sink could be so romantic?