The Super Sad Story Behind The Real St. Valentine

Photographed by Rachel Cabitt.
Over the years, February 14th has been saddled with the reputation of a saccharine, commercial-driven event, complete with bad candy and cheap Teddy bears. But this so-called Hallmark holiday has a much darker origin story than you might expect — one that definitely doesn't belong on a greeting card.

St. Valentine, for whom Valentine's Day is named, had a rough life. Back in the mid-third century, the Roman emperor (who went by the not-so-cute name Claudius the Cruel) prohibited young people from marrying, since he believed married soldiers didn't fight as well as single ones. Valentine, being a holy Christian priest (and therefore pro-marriage), went against the emperor's decree and started marrying people in secret.

This may sound romantic, but keep in mind: While Valentine may have really believed in the love between these couples and their right to marry, he defied the emperor in order to appease the Church. Christianity was still under attack at that time, and the Church was seeking to secure as many followers as possible. And marriage, as one of the seven sacraments, was a great way to do that.

Claudius eventually discovered Valentine's transgressions, imprisoned him, and called for his execution. Valentine was beaten to death with clubs, and then beheaded on February 14. That's why we celebrate Valentine's Day when we do — because that was the day this Roman priest was violently put to death (and he was eventually given sainthood).

Of course, that story doesn't completely explain why the day of St. Valentine's death has become a holiday dedicated to love, of all things. For that explanation, we look to the ancient Roman festival Lupercalia, a Pagan holiday that celebrates fertility and the coming of spring which falls on February 15. Over the years, these two holidays contributed to the secular celebration we know and love (or hate) today.

So, when you're kicking back with a box of heart-shaped chocolates or curling up with your favorite rom-com this Valentine's Day, remember the guy you're really celebrating. And try not to picture what was definitely a grisly way to go.
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