It comes around once a year and is usually touted as a big corporate scheme. But Valentine’s Day is way more than just a Hallmark holiday — it actually has a pretty rich history that dates all the way back to Ancient Rome! Across the United States and other parts of the world, people celebrate February 14 by exchanging everything from candy hearts and red roses to cute cards and romantic gifts with loved ones. But how exactly did these sweet traditions come about?
If you’re planning to celebrate V-Day this year with a romantic candlelit dinner with your S.O. (and plenty of delicious V-Day desserts afterwards, of course), you can be sure to impress your date with these 14 interesting Valentine’s Day facts — including fascinating details of how this romantic holiday first began and fun facts about how it came to be the modern candy-filled day it is today.
Don’t forget to check out GoodHousekeeping.com’s Valentine’s Day Guide.
1. It has some pretty dark roots.
Historians believe Valentine’s Day actually began in Ancient Rome as a pagan fertility festival called Lupercalia, with the celebration dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, and Roman founders Romulus and Remus. According to History.com, the day was celebrated with activities that included sacrificing animals and whipping women with animal skins until they bled, signifying their fertility.
2. In the 1300s, it officially became a holiday associated with love and romance.
The holiday was Christianized — no more animal sacrifices! — when the Roman Pope Gelasius officially declared the date of February 14 “St. Valentine’s Day.” The day then became associated with love because many believed that birds started their mating season on February 14.
3. Saint Valentine wasn’t just one person.
In fact, he might have been two or three. But the most common “founder” of Valentine’s Day was the Saint Valentine who defied Emperor Claudius II. At the time, Claudius had banned marriage because he thought it distracted young soldiers. Valentine felt a bit differently — he illegally married couples until he was caught. After he was sentenced to his death, young couples would visit his cell and give him flowers and cards. And the day he actually died? February 14. Allegedly.
But there have been multiple St. Valentines throughout history, including a bishop and one Pope (he only served for 40 days in 827 A.D.).
4. The first valentine was sent in the 15th century.
The oldest record of a valentine being sent, according to History.com, was a poem written by a French medieval duke named Charles to his wife in 1415. Charles penned this sweet note to his lover while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London at just 21 years old. One of the lines in the poem? “I am already sick of love, My very gentle Valentine.” Swoon!
5. Not until the 1840s did we get the first mass-produced valentines.
People started exchanging cards and handwritten letters to both lovers and friends during the 17th century, but it was in the 1840s that the first Valentine’s Day cards were mass-produced in the U.S., sold by Esther A. Howland. Known as the “Mother of the American Valentine,” Howland is credited with commercializing Valentine’s Day cards in America, and she is remembered for her elaborate, crafty cards made with lace and ribbons.
5. Today, it’s pretty big business.
About 55% of Americans celebrate Valentine’s Day and spend an estimated $19.6 billion a year, including more than $1.8 billion on candy alone. This year specifically, men say they expect to spend $338 on Valentine’s Day. And the women? Just $64. Time to step it up, ladies!
6. Americans send 145 million Valentine’s Day cards each year.
Which makes it the second biggest holiday for exchanging greeting cards, after Christmas! And how sweet: Teachers receive the most Valentine’s Day cards annually, followed by children, mothers, and wives. Needless to say, we’ve come a long way from 1913, which was when Hallmark Cards produced their first Valentine’s card!
7. And they also spend nearly $650 million on gifts for their pets.
Hey, furry friends need love, too! In fact, more than 5 million American households gave Valentine’s Day presents to their pet dogs last year, and more than 2 million picked up presents for their cats. But even though more Americans buy gifts for their dogs, people actually spend more on their pet kitties — an average of about $96 per household, compared to $81 for dogs!
8. The Valentine’s Day gift that people spend the most on is jewelry.
Candy and flowers might be the most common gifts for Valentine’s Day, but according to the National Retail Federation, the category that we spend the most on for February 14 is jewelry, at a whopping $4.7 billion! The second most-paid-for gift is an evening out with $3.7 billion, followed by flowers, clothing, and then candy.
9. The first heart-shaped box of chocolates was introduced in 1861.
It was created by Richard Cadbury, son of Cadbury founder John Cadbury, who started packaging chocolates in fancy boxes to increase sales. He introduced the first heart-shaped box of chocolates for V-Day in 1861, and today, more than 36 million heart-shaped boxes of chocolates are sold each year. That’s 58 million pounds of chocolate!
10. Conversation hearts got their start as medical lozenges.
Weirdly enough, the story of conversation hearts first began when a Boston pharmacist named Oliver Chase invented a machine that simplified the way medical lozenges — used for sore throats and other illnesses — could be made. The result was America’s first candy-making machine, because the pharmacist soon started shifting his focus from making lozenges to candy instead! Chase founded the New England Confectionery Company, or Necco, and the candy lozenges soon became what we know today as Necco wafers.
11. But it wasn’t until 1866 that we first got sweet printed messages on conversation hearts.
It was Oliver’s brother, Daniel Chase, who started printing sentimental messages on the Necco sweethearts, though these candies were bigger than the versions we have today — and featured much longer printed sayings and phrases. Some of the first messages? “Married in white you have chosen right” and “How long shall I have to wait? Please be considerate.”
12. More than 8 billion conversation hearts are manufactured each year.
And Necco has to start making them just days after February 14 to have enough in time for the next Valentine’s Day. That’s almost 100,000 pounds per day! Each box has approximately 45 sayings — including “True Love,” “Hug Me,” and “You Rock” — but you can personalize your own, too. But don’t worry if you still have last year’s box — they have a shelf life of five years.
13. Nearly 6 million couples get engaged on Valentine’s Day.
I mean, what better day is there for a marriage proposal than a day literally dedicated to love and romance? Valentine’s Day is one of the popular days to pop the question, with as many as 6 million couples getting engaged on February 14. And according to the results of this survey, Valentine’s Day was voted the best day of the year to propose than any other day — and of those people who voted, 40% were men!
14. It’s celebrated differently around the world.
Many Latin American countries know the holiday as el día de los enamorados (day of lovers) or día del amor y la amistad (day of love and friendship). Though couples exchange flowers and chocolate on this day, the holiday’s focus is also directed at showing gratitude to friends!
In Japan, it’s customary for just the women to give confections to the men in their lives, with the quality of the chocolate indicating their true feelings, according to Fortune. On March 14, exactly a month later, the men repay the favor by celebrating the increasingly popular “White Day.”