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Think Valentine’s Day Is Tough Now? The Holiday Used to Involve Choosing a Sweetheart by Lottery

6 minute read

Modern Valentine’s Day rituals are much maligned. The overpriced flowers. The overcrowded dinners. The overwrought poetry that greeting card companies sell for $5 a pop. But 21st century lovers are at least given the freedom to choose the person upon whom they will shower obligatory presents. Centuries ago, chance played a much bigger role in the process.

In the 17th and 18th centuries — and possibly as far back as the 15th, which would be not too long after Valentine’s Day first gained its association with love — it was customary for people in Europe to choose their Valentines by drawing lots.

Scholars have unearthed poems, diary entries and travelogues that all describe the proceedings. Often on the eve of Valentine’s Day, men and women would gather and write down their names; some accounts suggest women would arrive prepared, retrieving folded slips of paper from their bodices. Then the men would draw women’s names, and women men’s, to determine who was to be the object of their affection for the holiday. (The eagle-eyed might note that such drawings would likely yield two Valentines, the person you drew and the person who drew you. The men’s selections reportedly took precedence.)

University of Exeter professor Nick Groom, who recently published a paper on Valentine’s Day customs in the journal Folklore, describes the lottery as a widespread “social game,” one that took place in villages as well as at royal courts. Though some history suggests that the ensuing courtship was obliged to last until the following Valentine’s Day — effectively making it a year-long blind date — Groom says expectations were primarily about attending to that person for the following day.

Chief among the expectations were gifts. For many individuals, these might be trinkets or sweets, or perhaps a pair of gloves. For the upper classes, the ritual was more expensive. In an 1882 paper, British historian John W. Hales surfaced records showing that “Bloody” Queen Mary I of England once gave a gold-and-black broach decorated with agate and rubies to a man named Sir Antony Brown, who had the fortune of “drawing her grace” as his Valentine.

Men and women might wear the names of their divinely chosen sweethearts on their clothing, or tucked into their hats, for several days. And they might escort their Valentines to festivities. Romance hung about the day, and doe-eyed young lovers who happened to select their real crushes might see the lottery as a harbinger of more serious relationships. But, Groom says, the lotteries could also be more platonic fun. Married people and children might take part and the ensuing courtships might include “good-natured clowning” rather than actual wooing. “It was a form of social bonding in the community,” he explains, even if it was also an “imitation of blind Cupid’s arrow.”

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So how did the custom come about?

In his research, Groom links the ritual to other methods of “love prognostication” en vogue at the time, ranging from reading tea leaves to sleeping with wedding cake under one’s pillow. Games of chance that were supposed to portend something about the future (much like chanting “he loves me, he loves me not” as one pulls petals off a daisy) were not all that unusual. And it was also a common practice to make one’s Valentine the first person a participant laid eyes upon on the holiday.

This apparently led to some lovers placing themselves below their sweethearts’ windows in the early morning and to strategic eye-closing in cases of less mutual affection. In Hamlet, Ophelia references this practice when she says, “Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s day/ All in the morning betime/ And I a maid at your window/ To be your Valentine.”

For centuries a tidy tale about how the practice derived from ancient Roman customs was told and retold, but scholars have debunked the connection.

Historians such as Francis Douce suggested it all goes back to the ancient Roman fertility festival of Lupercalia, which involved men running around the streets of town and whipping straps of goatskin leather about them. If a woman was hit by a strap, it was a sign she was fertile and so many would purposefully throw themselves in the way. The story was that men and women also drew lots during Lupercalia in order to practice more intimate fertility rites. The church supposedly tried to upend this pagan custom by forcing men and women to draw the names saints to worship instead and this, centuries later, evolved into drawing lots on St. Valentine’s Day. But Duncan MacRae, an assistant professor of classics at the University of California, Berkeley, says there is no evidence showing that lotteries were part of Lupercalia, nor any kind of pairing off among young men and women. “There’s just nothing to draw lots for,” he says.

He sees the theory as the product of the Enlightenment, an era in which people wanted to provide rational explanations for customs that seemed irrational. “In early modern Europe there was an idea that you would randomize your Valentine, that you left it up to a system of chance,” MacRae says. “But none of that has ancient backing.”

Though some Europeans were still drawing lots as recently as the late 1800s, the ritual eventually died out. Hales, the British historian, presented a few ideas about why drawing lots went the way of goat-skin-slapping. “A lady might possibly enough find it somewhat inconvenient and annoying to have a gentleman … especially allied with her for a year, the assignment being made altogether by lot,” he wrote. “Chance must often have been unfriendly.”

And the idea of letting chance rather than choice dictate one’s love life is to many a “highly repulsive” proposition, he acknowledged.

So if you find yourself miffed that you’re paying $50 for a grocery-store bouquet this year, remember that you are at least buying it for someone you’ve selected using methods better than a Magic 8-Ball. “We often talk of the lottery of marriage,” Hales wrote. “But no lover thinks of marriage — at least his own marriage — in that light.”

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