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My bloody Valentine: The strange origins of a romantic holiday

Valentine's Day chocolate treats are displayed at the Le Chocolatier as they prepare for a Valentine's day rush on February 12, 2014 in North Miami, Florida.
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Valentine's Day chocolate treats are displayed at the Le Chocolatier as they prepare for a Valentine's day rush on February 12, 2014 in North Miami, Florida.

Strange but true: For a day swaddled in romantic imagery and love, Valentine's Day has a history literally drenched in blood, one seldom mentioned in the context of gifts and edibles.

The day most people around the world mark with candy, dinner and outings with their spouses and loved ones has long been associated with St. Valentine. Yet the holiday can be traced back to historic England and ancient Rome, according to The History Channel, a mix of both religious and secular traditions.

As it happens, the patron saint of all things romantic was actually a martyr. The channel points out that a swirl of legends surround Valentine, one of the most popular being that he was a priest who defied the orders of Emperor Claudius II, and that the Catholic Church actually recognizes at least three separate figures known as Valentine. All of them died violent deaths.

According to some accounts, Claudius outlawed marriage for young men, prompting Valentine to marry young lovers in secret, The History Channel writes. When his actions were revealed to the emperor, Claudius had him killed. Separate legends claimed that Valentine was actually killed for helping extricate Christians from Roman prisons.

Wait, there's more: Valentine's Day is also linked to a complex ancient ritual celebrated by pagans. According to some, a fertility festival called Lupercalia—which sought to honor Fanus, the Roman god of agriculture—sacrificed goats and dogs for purification. The animal hides would then be stripped, dipped in blood and used in a ceremony that was said to make women more fertile. The whole event would culminate in eligible bachelors picking the name of a young woman from a large urn, then marrying them.

Over time, these customs gradually evolved into the modern day retail fest to which most people have grown accustomed. The Daily Beast points out that the very first Valentine's Day card appeared in 1415—but the legend of St. Valentine didn't actually emerge until nearly 80 years after that fact.