Every February 14 around the world, candy, flowers and gifts are exchanged between loved ones, all in the name of St. Valentine. But who is this mysterious saint and where did these traditions come from? Find out about the history of this centuries-old holiday, from ancient Roman rituals to the customs of Victorian England.
Legend of St. Valentine
The history of Valentine’s Day–and the story of its patron saint–is shrouded in mystery. We do know that February has long been celebrated as a month of romance and that St. Valentine’s Day, as we know it today, contains vestiges of both Christian and ancient Roman tradition. But who was Saint Valentine, and how did he become associated with this ancient rite?
The Catholic Church recognizes at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom were martyred. One legend contends that Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome. When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to marry young lovers in secret. When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death.
Other stories suggest that Valentine may have been killed for attempting to help Christians escape harsh Roman prisons, where they were often beaten and tortured. According to one legend, an imprisoned Valentine actually sent the first ‘valentine’ greeting himself after he fell in love with a young girl – possibly his jailor’s daughter – who visited him during his confinement. Before his death, it is said that he wrote her a letter signed: “From your Valentine,” an expression that is still in use today. Although the truth behind the Valentine legends is murky, the stories all emphasize his appeal as a sympathetic, heroic and – most importantly – romantic figure. By the Middle Ages, perhaps thanks to this reputation, Valentine would become one of the most popular saints in England and France.
Origins: Pagan festival
While some believe that Valentine’s Day is celebrated in the middle of February to commemorate the anniversary of Valentine’s death or burial – which probably occurred around AD 270 – others claim that the Christian church may have decided to place St. Valentine’s feast day in the middle of February in an effort to ‘Christianize’ the pagan celebration of Lupercalia. Celebrated at the ides of February, or February 15, Lupercalia was a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, as well as to the Roman founders Romulus and Remus.
To begin the festival, members of the Luperci, an order of Roman priests, would gather at a sacred cave where the infants Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were believed to have been cared for by a she-wolf or Lupa. The priests would sacrifice a goat, for fertility and a dog for purification. They would then strip the goat’s hide into strips, dip them into the sacrificial blood and take to the streets, gently slapping both women and crop fields with the goat hide. Far from being fearful, Roman women welcomed the touch of the hides because it was believed to make them more fertile in the coming year. Later in the day, according to legend, all the young women in the city would place their names in a big urn. The city’s bachelors would each choose a name and become paired for the year with his chosen woman. These matches often ended in marriage.
Day of romance
Lupercalia survived the initial rise of Christianity but was outlawed — as it was deemed ‘un-Christian’ – at the end of the 5th century when Pope Gelasius declared February 14 St. Valentine’s Day. It was not until much later however that the day became definitively associated with love. During the Middle Ages, it was commonly believed in France and England that February 14 was the beginning of the bird-mating season, which added to the idea that the middle of Valentine’s Day should be a day for romance.
Valentine greetings were popular as far back as the Middle Ages, though written Valentine’s didn’t begin to appear until after 1400. The oldest known Valentine still in existence today was a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt. (The greeting is now part of the manuscript collection of the British Library in London, England.) Several years later, it is believed that King Henry V hired a writer named John Lydgate to compose a Valentine note to Catherine of Valois.
Typical Valentine’s Day greetings
In addition to the United States, Valentine’s Day is celebrated in Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, France and Australia. In Great Britain, Valentine’s Day began to be popularly celebrated around the 17th Century. By the middle of the 18th Century, it was common for friends and lovers of all social classes to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes and by 1900 printed cards began to replace written letters due to improvements in printing technology. Ready-made cards were an easy way for people to express their emotions in a time when direct expression of one’s feelings was discouraged. Cheaper postage rates also contributed to an increase in the popularity of sending Valentine’s Day greetings.
Americans probably began exchanging hand-made Valentines in the early 1700s. In the 1840s, Esther A. Howland began selling the first mass-produced Valentines in America. Howland, known as the ‘Mother of the Valentine’, made elaborate creations with real lace, ribbons and colourful pictures known as ‘scrap’. Today, according to the Greeting Card Association, an estimated one billion Valentine’s Day cards are sent each year, making Valentine’s Day the second largest card-sending holiday of the year. An estimated 2.6 billion cards are sent for Christmas. Women purchase approximately 85 percent of all Valentines.
Pucker up! Valentine’s Day kiss-and-tell exposes some fascinating facts about the annual love fest and how February 14 is observed around the world.
Although Valentine’s Day is thought to be named after a Christian saint, there’s nothing remotely religious about this day set aside for love and lovers. There are references linking Valentine’s Day to courtship in the Middle Ages but it wasn’t until the late 18th century that the British began sending paper Valentine cards to one another. Americans adopted the custom and ran with it, turning February 14 into a mass-marketer’s dream day of chocolate, cards, flowers and lest we forget, love. Today Valentine’s Day is popping up in lots of places. Admittedly, in countries where it’s a recent import, it’s mainly celebrated by younger people.
Not everyone’s a fan
Plenty of people may loathe February 14. Among them single, divorced or just plain depressed folks who suffer from what’s been termed ‘the Valentine’s Day Blues’. Others are put off by the over-hyped marketing. Elsewhere, it’s been criticized as too western, Christian-like and to some too immoral. Saudi Arabia bans the sale of red roses and other Valentine’s Day items, because it’s a western holiday named after a Christian saint. Malaysian religious authorities arrested more than 100 Muslim couples for celebrating Valentine’s Day in 2011 and Iran banned the printing of Valentine’s Day related materials.
Origins of Cupid
How did a chunky, naked baby with wings and a bow and an arrow come to symbolize romance? Meet Cupid, off-spring of the Roman god Venus. Named after the Latin word for ‘desire’ (cupido), legend has it that the chubby cherub can cause a victim to fall in love merely by shooting a golden arrow into his or her heart.
Valentine’s Day in France
Paris may be the world’s most romantic city, but the French villages of Saint Valentin and Roquemaure are competing hard. Every year, on the weekend closest to February 14, Saint Valentin offers lovers the chance to marry in a rose-covered garden and pin love notes on the Tree of Vows. Roquemaure’s ‘lovers’ festival’ boasts 19th Century costumes and music.
Because of a supposed error in early Valentine’s Day candy ads in Japan, women thought they were supposed to give men candy, instead of the other way around. Candy makers dubbed March 14 as a ‘reply day’ called ‘White Day’ and urged men to give chocolates to the women. It worked. The custom caught on. These days, Japanese chocolate companies make 50 per cent of their annual sales over Valentine’s Day.
Lovebirds flock to Bangkok’s Bang Rak district, Thailand’s ‘Village of Love’ to be married on Valentine’s Day. They believe the aptly named village will ensure them a long lasting marriage, and they begin lining up outside the Bang Rack district office in the wee hours of the morning.
One study claims 53 per cent of women in America would dump their boyfriends if they did not get them anything for Valentine’s Day. Another US study found that 38 per cent of men have considered ending a relationship rather than face the task of choosing a ‘really good’ gift for their partner. Pets on the other hand, make out like bandits. Americans spend an estimated $367 million on Valentine’s Day presents for their furry babies.
In 2009, members of a Hindu fundamentalist group named The Sri Ram Sene attacked women in a pub in Mangalore, and their leader Pramod Muthalik announced he’d deal harshly with anybody celebrating Valentine’s Day. A group of young women decided to fight back by asking women all over the country to mail the organization pink panties. It got thousands in the mail; more than 3000 women participated in the campaign. It seems to have worked. Celebrations for the past several years have been quiet.