The real Saint Valentine, Al Capone and more strange events tied to the lovey-dovey holiday

By Anna Davies
February 02, 2018 11:03 AM

Valentine’s Day may be associated with romance, but the origin of the holiday isn’t romantic at all. Here’s the history of Valentine’s Day you may not know.

Whether you love Valentine’s Day or hate it, one thing’s clear: Valentine’s Day history goes way back. And while it’s now known for kissing, candy hearts, and hard-to-get dinner reservations, the origins of the holiday are far less romantic. Here, the Valentine’s Day history that wouldn’t make it into a rom-com, including Greek gods, medieval poets, and even Al Capone (seriously!).

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How Did Valentine’s Day Start

Valentine’s Day is a fixed day on the calendar (be sure to tell that to the next person who asks what day is Valentine’s Day) and the ancient Roman calendar included a mid-February holiday even before Saint Valentine’s time. That holiday, called Lupercalia, celebrated fertility, and may have included a ritual in which men and women were paired off by choosing names from a jar. Miles away, in Ancient Greece, people observed a mid-winter celebration marking the marriage of the god Zeus and the goddess Hera. Some historians posit that these traditions may have influenced the way we now celebrate February 14.

Zeus and Hera portrayed on a government building in Vienna

Who Was Saint Valentine

Who was Saint Valentine, exactly, and what does he have to do with chocolates? Not much, it turns out. Saint Valentine’s Day was a feast day in the Catholic religion, added to the liturgical calendar around 500 AD. The day was commemorated for two martyred roman priests named—you guessed it—Valentine. However, very little was known about them, and, because there were conflicting reports on the Saint Valentine’s Day story, the feast day was removed from the Christian liturgical calendar in 1969.

Despite the lack of hard facts, the legend of Saint Valentine now has several tellings. One says that the Saint Valentine refused to convert to paganism and was executed by Roman Emperor Claudius II. Prior to his death, he was able to miraculously heal the daughter of his jailer, who then converted to Christianity along with his family.

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But according to others—and this is how Saint Valentine became affiliated with a love-focused holiday—he was a Roman priest who performed weddings for soldiers forbidden to marry, because of an edict decreeing married soldiers did not make good warriors. He wore a ring with a Cupid on it—a symbol of love—which helped soldiers recognize him. And, in a precursor to greeting cards, he handed out paper hearts to remind Christians of their love for God.

Because of this legend, St. Valentine became known as the patron saint of love. The Saint Valentine prayer even asks him to connect lovers together.

While the story set the groundwork for establishing the day as a holiday for romantic love, what truly solidified the connection was a 1381 poem by writer Geoffrey Chaucer, which historians consider the origin of the “modern” celebration.

Medieval writer Geoffrey Chaucer

Why Do We Celebrate Valentine’s Day?

Chaucer’s time in the middle ages was the era of courtly love, when broad, romantic statements — poems, songs, paintings — celebrated partnership. By the end of the 15th century, the word “valentine” was being used to describe a lover in poems and songs, and in the 18th century, a book called The Young Man’s Valentine Writer was published in England. By the mid-19th century, mass-produced paper Valentine cards were being created, and Valentine’s Day as we know it was born.

A 2000 reenactment of the Valentine's Day Massacre in Chicago
New York Daily News Archive/Getty

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The truth about Valentine’s Day history is that the romantic holiday isn’t immune to trauma. In Prohibition Chicago in 1929, seven men were killed by a gang organized by Al Capone on February 14. The Valentine’s Day Massacre became a flashpoint in prohibition history, with police and lawmakers going after the gangs and mobs that had formed in cities to control illegal substances like alcohol.

No matter how you’re celebrating, or who with, know that V-day can be as lovey-dovey, or low-key, as you want it to be! Here, 100 most romantic restaurants for Valentine’s Day.