The Strange but True Story Behind Valentine’s Day

July 4, 2023

While this is not your conventional story about Valentine’s Day that’s filled with romance, it’s a fascinating take on a tradition that is widely celebrated on February 14 in many countries around the world.

Strange but true…

You are looking at the skull of an ancient Roman Martyr named Valentine which resides in the Rome, in the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. Whether or not it’s the skull of the martyr who inspired Valentine’s day is a matter of some debate, to put it mildly. Bound up in this debate is the unexpected history of one of the world’s most curious holidays.


Let’s start from the beginning…who was Saint Valentine?

The better question is ‘who were?’ Depending on who’s counting, there are between 12 and 14 Saint Valentines, including a Spanish hermit and a woman – Valentina. Turns out, it was a pretty common name during Late Antiquity. As far as anyone can tell, the Saint Valentine of Valentine’s Day was one of two guys preaching the good word in Rome in the third century. One of these two was martyred on February 14th 269, thus giving us the date for his eponymous day.


So what did this guy, er, guys, have to do with love and greeting cards, and overpriced restaurants?


Saint Valentine’s remains sat in a catacomb like this one for hundreds of years before being recovered and put on display.

Absolutely nothing. ¬†After he was killed, Valentine’s remains sat in the Catacombs of San Valentino for a while before moving to Santa Maria in Cosmedin (or the Basilica of Saint Valentine in Terni, if you support the claim of the other Valentine) where they were visited by pilgrims for many years. They probably would have remained venerated, but somewhat anonymous relics for the patron saint of beekeepers and people suffering from the plague had it not been for Chaucer.


What does an English medieval poet have to do with a Roman martyr?

As far as anyone can tell, this guy is the reason that people spend billions of dollars on cards, candies, and flowers every February 14th.

As far as anyone can tell, this guy is the reason that people spend billions of dollars on cards, candies, and flowers every February 14th.

Geoffrey Chaucer has nothing to do with Roman martyrs but he has a lot to do with English literature and that’s how he created a connection between Saint Valentine and love celebrations. The first written connection between love and Valentine’s Day appears in his poem, Parlement of Foules, written in the late 14th century. He appears to have simply invented the correlation and chalked it up to poetic license, though it’s also possible that he was drawing from older courtly traditions.


So Valentine’s Day is basically a sham invented by a poet in order to make his lines rhyme?

| Photo by Karen Horten via Flickr.

A vintage example of a mass-produced valentine from America | Photo by Karen Horton via Flickr

Not exactly. Shortly after Chaucer mentioned love on Valentine’s Day, real-life lovers began to send each other love poems on February 14th. (it’s possible that these predate Chaucer, but we simply don’t know.) To put that another way, people have been writing valentines to their loved ones for over 500 years, so even if there’s no direct connection to a guy who was murdered horribly by ancient Roman pagans, it’s still part of a serious legacy of love.


That’s actually pretty heartwarming. I thought it was just another Hallmark Holiday…

Not so fast. Modern Valentine’s day is very much a product of the various industries that benefit from it – namely, stationery, chocolate, flowers, and jewelry. Every year, billions of dollars are spent on these items, even in countries where Western holidays are frowned upon or outlawed have seen an upsurge in Valentine’s Day gifts in recent years. In Saudi Arabia, where the holiday is illegal, there is a thriving black market for red roses and heart-shaped chocolates in February.

Interestingly in Japan, possibly due to a translation error in an early chocolate ad (the holiday was imported from the United States after the Second World War), women are expected to give chocolate to lovers, boyfriends, and even male co-workers. However, Japan also celebrates a gift-giving tradition on March 14th where they are expected to give white chocolates of equal or greater value to anyone who gave them chocolate in February.

All of this for an old skull sitting in a church in Rome?

The Scala Sancta is one of the largest relics in the world - an entire stone staircase brought from the Holy Land by Saint Helena.

The Scala Sancta is one of the largest relics in the world. An entire stone staircase brought from the Holy Land by Saint Helena, it is supposedly the same one that Jesus ascended on his way to being judged by Pontius Pilate.

Not just any old skull. Relics comprised the backbone of Rome’s original tourism industry which sprung up during the Middle Ages and was based around Christian Pilgrims who came to visit the City’s many churches and holy sites. Relics, in particular, became huge tourist draws because of the miraculous powers they were thought to contain – some of which could be transferred to the faithful who came in contact with them. In our less credulous time, relics have lost some of their ability to draw visitors but they remain impressive, and sometimes macabre additions to many of the churches in Rome.
Update notice: This article was updated on January 10, 2023.

by Martina V.

View more by Martina ›

Follow us

Stay up to date with travel tips, local insights and all things Italy on our social channels!

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Get curated Italy travel tips delivered to your inbox!

Your browser is out-of-date!

Update your browser to view this website correctly. Update my browser now