valentines day candy heart
Shutterstock/Jennifer Bui/Thrillist
Shutterstock/Jennifer Bui/Thrillist

The Secret Origin of Valentine's Day Will Break Your Heart

Commercialized, stressful, sad. Lots of folks might describe Valentine's Day using those words, whether they have reason to celebrate with a partner or not. If the day packaged and sold to you in the name of love feels as disingenuous as that U2 song repeats the phrase "in the name of love," you're not crazy -- it is! The actual history of Valentine's Day is a fraught one, filled with murder, abuse, and the failures of romance. Here is the historical horror, in the name of love.

It started with a violently abusive Roman holiday about wolves

The furthest back we've been able to trace the origin of Valentine's Day is a Roman feast day called Lupercalia (from the Latin "lupus" for "wolf"). It was a holiday celebrated in mid-February where, per the Greek writer Plutarch, "many of the noble youths and of the magistrates run up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they meet with shaggy thongs." They mirthfully physically abused women who were pregnant or infertile, on the logic that whipping them would help them with the babymaking. Plutarch writes that women of rank were into this and would "purposely get in their way" to receive punishment, and I would believe that bit whole-hog if this were not the same culture that quite literally defined the word "patriarchy." After the dudes were done, they sacrificed two goats and dog and congratulated themselves by anointing each other with their blood.

There's the whole matter of several Valentines dying

That was Lupercalia, but Valentine's Day is named after St. Valentine, the saint canonized by the Roman Catholic Church as a patron of love, young people, and happy marriages. Here's where the history gets murky: several Valentines in the Roman Empire were executed or martyred in the name of Christianity -- at least two of them in the 3rd century by Emperor Claudius II alone, both on February 14. Claudius (also known as Claudius the Cruel) executed the first, Valentine of Rome, for illegally marrying people after the emperor had explicitly stated marriage was not allowed under his Roman reign. The second, Valentine of Terni, was a spiritual leader and faith healer said to have restored sight to the blind. A third was also believed to have been martyred in Africa.

At some point in the next two hundred years, after the Roman Catholic Church gained more of a foothold in Rome and on the continent, Pope Gelasius I took steps "to purify" the month of February. Following an 1,800-page letter to the Roman senator Andromachus, he successfully abolished Lupercalia in the late 5th century and replaced it with St. Valentine's Day. Rome even keeps a skull of the St. Valentine of Rome on display that tourists with morbid curiosity can check out for free.

“Courtship in High Life” by Thomas Rowlandson | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

And the engine of history didn't quit there, either

February 14 is -- like any other day on the historical calendar -- quite deadly, in fact. The most infamous example of this in modern times might be the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, in 1929. In a brutal play for domination over Chicago's organized crime operations, Al Capone and his goons emptied 90 bullets into the bodies of seven men from his rival George "Bugs" Moran's gang, all before noon on a Thursday. Moran survived, but Capone was the boss in town from then on, and everyone knew it. The massacre floored city of Chicago so badly that the Chicago Tribune wrote at the time: "The butchering of seven men by open daylight raises this question for Chicago: Is it helpless?" Gang violence of the '20s, of course, wasn't the end of history's Valentine's Day horrors.

The New York Times, February 26, 1894 | The New York Times Archive

We've known this about Valentine's Day all along; it might be why the holiday still matters

None of this is new information, of course, but it strikes me as a perfectly human reaction to react to sadness and tragedy by holding the people closest to you. If we can learn anything from Valentine's Day, it's that. Ultimately, if you value someone's presence in your life, you should tell them, in the kindest, warmest, gentlest way you can muster. Newspapers like Westminster Gazette (via the New York Times) have published pieces with headlines like "VALENTINES OUT OF FASHION" for more than 120 years at this point. Others lament the end of love by lamenting the end of life itself, like this 1906 quote from a Times column by Lillie Devereux Blake: "Alas! The gentle lad who sent this missive fell long ago on the battlefield, and the gay troupe of youngsters that were so interested in the valentines that were fashionable in those days are here on longer or are worn with the battle of life."

History may be sad, but it's also proven Blake wrong. The fact is that Valentine's Day is not out of fashion. Humans still make love. Couples still value a day to celebrate their (insufferable) partnerships. Curmudgeonly single folks still (secretly) relish a day where their gripes are 100-percent justified. Hollywood will find ways to make money regardless of whether its romantic comedies rise to greatness or not.

There's something valuable in that ecosystem for everyone, if you have the courage and self-awareness to find it. Happy Valentine's Day.

Eric Vilas-Boas knows not to rely on history for emotional support. Follow him @e_vb_.