Let’s get real for a minute: there’s nothing sexier than old Roman martyrs or Geoffrey Chaucer.
Valentine’s Day as we know it is a product of the Victorians. Twee, gilt cherub-and-chapel-encrusted greeting cards boomed because, in 1840, the British postal service reduced the price of a stamp, from more than a day’s wages to a mere penny. This put the quintessential Hallmark holiday within reach of the working classes. Thrilled at the opportunity to avail of economical postage, many Victorians went straight for the arts and crafts, building heartsick confections out of lace, ribbon, seashells, pressed flowers and foil appliques. A few cut straight to the point, with the Victorian version of a sext: “Another, rather saucy card, featured what is possibly a pair of Victorian undergarments, with the message, ‘I think of you with inexpressible delight’.” In the US, an entrepreneurial woman, Esther Howland, brought the European cards to America by crafting her own understated stationery with imported supplies. No sooner were cards a thing than people started complaining that cards were a thing: “The custom [of exchanging valentines] with us has no useful feature, and the sooner it is abolished the better.”
But before the Victorians got their freaky, repressed, lace-loving hands on it, St. Valentine’s Day was a moderately-unpopular saint’s day for a 3rd-century Roman priest who was known for refusing paganism and curing epilepsy, not helping lovers. February 14th wasn’t associated with romance historically, either. In Rome, the 15th of February was when the Lupercalia, later known as Februa, was held. Lupercalia was a far more ancient tradition of Sabine or Etruscan origin, ancient enough that imperial Romans were a bit fuzzy on who exactly was being honored by the festival, but they agreed it was worth celebrating. Overlapping a longer festival of the ancestral dead, Lupercalia featured goat sacrifices to Faunus, Inuus or Lupercus (maybe), expiations, purifications, and public whipping by wild, disreputable, half-naked wolf-priests (luperci). Unsurprisingly, Lupercalia remained popular into the early Christian era, finally snuffed out by 5th century no-fun-nik Pope Gelasius. Lupercalia in 44 BCE was also the backdrop for Julius Caesar’s coy refusal of a golden diadem presented by head lupercus Marc Antony (though Caesar was happy to be appointed dictator for life, which would end up being about a month).
So if we don’t get romance from the Romans, who’s the missing link between the modern capitalist orgy of performative passion and an iconoclastic saint? Chaucer, naturally.
Geoffrey Chaucer (and a few other poet bros of his) basically pulled the entire love-oriented Valentine’s Day custom out of his ass for his 1382 poem “The Parlement of Foules,” a rambling dream-narrative about a guy falling asleep reading Cicero and dreaming about anthropomorphic Nature holding court over a bird parliament slash singles club, and then claimed it was totally part of a definitely historical and not-at-all made-up folk tradition. Chaucer had a background in the literary tradition of courtly love, a medieval approach to wooing a lady characterized by a gentleman declaring his interest, being turned down, and then being even nicer to her while keeping his hands to himself. However, courtly love isn’t associated with any of the numerous Saints Valentine, nor the saints with birds, spring, new growth or love. Instead, Chaucer took the time-honored approach of stirring up some contemporary conventional wisdom about spring and the humours with some newly-minted nonsense about birds’ relationships and sticking it into the laziest framing device since the invention of writing.
Given a few centuries, a fistful of glitter (invented 1934) and fiscally-responsible postal reforms, the Roman purification holiday that was too raucous to live but too popular to die became the modern, socially-acceptable, Cupid-driven holiday we now tolerate.