Happy Valentine's Day. You may not be aware of the holiday's macabre origins. But Saint Valentine, the day's namesake, was acutely aware of it as his head was separating from his body. If you're having a bad time of it today, keep that in mind.
Valentine was a Roman priest who lived under the thumb of Emperor Claudius II. Today, likely in 278 AD, Valentine was executed for performing illegal marriage ceremonies against Claudius's decrees.
Claudius, who had the charming nickname "Claudius the Cruel," was waging multiple military campaigns at the time. Recruitment numbers for his armies was anemic. To encourage citizens to enlist, Claudius banned all new marriages, in the hope that family attachments wouldn't discourage men from taking up arms.
Valentine officiated clandestine marriages, in direct defiance of Claudius. The emperor learned of the marriages and Valentine was brought before the Prefect of Rome to be sentenced to death by beating with clubs and beheading.
The tradition of Valentine's Day cards may have its origins in an apocryphal story about Valentine leaving his jailer's daughter a note that read "From Your Valentine," before he was executed.
Interestingly, the story above is only one of three plausible origin stories for the holiday. There were two other St. Valentines, both of the others also martyrs, who have an association with February 14.
It is also possible that Valentine's Day is held on February 14 because that date originally coincided with the Feast of Lupercalia, a pagan love festival. The festival was outlawed in 496 by Pope Gelasius, who renamed the day St. Valentine's Day.