For many, the 14th day of February is the holiday of love. Celebrated with flowers, chocolates, and romantic gifts, it’s the day to show your special someone how you feel about them. While the modern symbolism of Valentine’s Day may conjure images of Cupid, the cherubic Roman deity of love, whose arrows cause their targets to become infatuated with the next person they see, Valentine’s Day itself is actually rooted in Christianity as “Saint Valentine’s Day”, and dates back to the mid-fifth century. However, its roots go back almost two centuries before that.
The namesake of the holiday, Saint Valentine, is traced by the Catholic Church to at least three saints who were all martyred. One, named Valentine, was a priest in Rome in the third century. Then Emperor Claudius II had outlawed marriage for young men, claiming that the unmarried made better soldiers. Valentine is said to have defied the emperor, and continued marrying young couples in secret. When Claudius found out, he had Valentine killed. Another figure believed to have begun the holiday is Valentine of Terni, who Claudius is also believed to have killed.
Another tale claims that Valentine may have been killed for helping Christians escape from the harsh prisons of Rome. Valentine is said to have fallen in love with the daughter of a jailor who visited him while in prison, sending her a letter that read “From Your Valentine”. These tales, cementing Saint Valentine as a heroic and romantic figure, made him an incredibly popular saint across Europe during the Middle Ages.
While it’s commonly believed that February 14 was picked to commemorate the death of Saint Valentine in the mid-third century, some accounts claim that the date was picked by the Church to draw pagans away from celebrating Lupercalia, which was in mid-February. The pagan holiday was a fertility celebration, and also used to honor the Roman founders Romulus and Remus, who were said to have been raised by a she-wolf.
At the end of the fifth century, Pope Gelasius decreed that Lupercalia was un-Christian, and the holiday was outlawed. Gelasius then declared that February 14 would be “Saint Valentine’s Day”. However, the holiday would not come to be associated with love, as it is now, until the 14th century. Poet Geoffrey Chaucer, in his “Parliament of Foules” (modernized as “Parliament of Fowls”), would write, “For this was sent on Saint Valentine’s Day, when every fowl comes there to choose his mate.”
The oldest surviving Valentine is a 15th-century message written by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife, while he was being held in the Tower of London. The message reads, “Je suis desja d’amour tanné
Ma tres doulce Valentinée,” which translates to, “I’m already tanned for love, my very sweet Valentine.”
Over the centuries to follow, writers would solidify the idea of Valentine’s Day as a romantic one, with everyone from William Shakespeare to John Donne waxing romantic about the holiday. One of the most well-known Valentine’s poems comes from Joseph Johnson, and was published in “Gammer Gurton’s Garland” in 1784:
“The rose is red, the violet’s blue,
The honey’s sweet, and so are you.
Thou art my love and I am thine;
I drew thee to my Valentine:
The lot was cast and then I drew,
And Fortune said it shou’d be you.”
The drawing of the name, the lot being cast, and leaving love to Fortune (or Fate) alludes to a 16th century practice wherein men would draw the names of young women at random to get together. This practice was stamped out by priests beginning in about 1600, and replaced with a tradition of young women drawing the names of apostles.
As the centuries rolled along, Valentine’s Day became a big commercial holiday. Starting as early as the late 1700s, books of Valentine’s letters could be purchased by hopeful young men who weren’t blessed with the gift of poetry. Valentine’s cards with ribbons, lace, and all manner of frills were sent out by the British post. 60,000 or more Valentine cards were sent through the post in 1835, even though postage rates at the time were prohibitive. When Great Britain reduced the cost of postage in 1840, the number of cards sent skyrocketed to over 400,000.
This practice would lead to the manufacturing of pre-made Valentine cards, which is still an insanely profitable industry in the modern day. However, English chocolatier Cadbury would make the next great leap in Valentine’s gifts. In 1868, Cadbury introduced their “Fancy Boxes” that contained an assortment of chocolates in a decorative box. All one has to do is travel to any store today to see that the tradition of giving boxes of assorted chocolates is still alive and well. As the years went by, other gifts became popular such as flowers and jewelry.
In the United States, Valentine’s Day is a multi-billion-dollar industry, with the average American spending almost $140 on their significant other. While that may seem excessive, studies have shown that the general celebration of Valentine’s Day is on the decline across America since 2019. Many Americans have said that their reasons range from feeling that the holiday is overly commercialized, or that they have no significant other to celebrate with. The pandemic and general state of the economy are likely factors as well.
Do you have a Valentine this year? Will you be celebrating the holiday of love? If not, there’s always the tongue-in-cheek alternative of “National Singles Awareness Day” that you can celebrate with friends. Either way, grab some chocolate, write some bad poetry, and have a Happy Valentine’s Day.