KEY POINTS

  • Valentine's Day has origins in Lupercalia, an ancient pagan festival observed by the Romans from Feb. 13 to 15.
  • The holiday is said to have been named after one or two saints named Valentine who were martyred
  • Pope Gelasius I replaced Lupercalia with St. Valentine's Day in the 5th century to put an end to pagan celebrations

Valentine's Day has become one of the most highly anticipated days of the year around the globe, giving all those with lovers, spouses and crushes a chance to express their love or show appreciation for their other half. But how did it start?

Valentine's Day is said to have origins in Lupercalia, an ancient pagan festival observed by the Romans from Feb. 13 to 15. To celebrate the coming of spring, the men would sacrifice a goat and a dog, the hides of which were then used to whip women, NPR reported.

Noel Lenski, a historian at the University of Colorado at Boulder, told NPR that young women believed this would make them fertile. The holiday also involved the pairing off of women with men by lottery.

As for the origin of the name of the holiday, it is believed that Valentine's Day got its name from one or two saints named Valentine who were martyred. The Catholic Church recognizes at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus.

One legend says Valentine's Day was named after St. Valentine of Rome, a priest who defied Emperor Claudius II in the 3rd century A.D. when the latter outlawed marriage for young men upon realizing that they made better soldiers when they were single, according to History.com. Valentine continued to marry couples in secret, which eventually led to Claudius executing him after he discovered his actions.

Some accounts say it was St. Valentine of Interamna (modern Terni, Italy) for whom the holiday was named. Bishop Valentine was imprisoned and beheaded by Claudius in Rome on Feb. 14, 269 A.D., according to one biography. But it has been said that St. Valentine of Rome and Bishop Valentine may have been one person.

There is said to be another saint of the same name who resided in a Roman province in North Africa and was also martyred, according to BigThink.com.

Another legend claims the holiday was named after an imprisoned priest who signed a letter "from your Valentine" to a young girl he had befriended as she visited him in prison. The girl, according to some accounts, was cured by Valentine of blindness. Britannica.com noted that this may have actually been St. Valentine of Terni.

In the 5th century, Pope Gelasius I replaced Lupercalia with the Feast of Saint Valentine, also known as Saint Valentine's Day, to put an end to pagan celebrations.

"It was a little more of a drunken revel, but the Christians put clothes back on it. That didn't stop it from being a day of fertility and love," Lenski said.

It was not until the Middle Ages, however, that Valentine's Day came to be celebrated as a day of romance. People began sending formal messages to their loved one on Feb. 14 around the 1500s.

By the late 1700s, commercially printed cards started being used by lovers, and by the mid-1800s, the very first commercial valentines were printed in the U.S.

Cupid, the Roman god of love, is often depicted as an angel with wings and is associated with heart symbols, per Britannica. Birds are also associated with the holiday as February was considered in France and England to be the month when avian mating season begins.

Now, Valentine's Day is celebrated around the world. Although initially considered a holiday exclusively for couples, the day is now also celebrated among friends and family who want to show their appreciation and love for each other.

True love: a woman and her Valentine's Day date pose behind a heart-shaped pastry during a February 14 Paris flash mob True love: a woman and her Valentine's Day date pose behind a heart-shaped pastry during a February 14 Paris flash mob Photo: AFP / FRANCOIS GUILLOT