The History of Valentine’s Day
"It took at least until the Middle Ages for our modern traditions to begin"
Every February 14th, across the world, lovesick romantics wake hopefully to open at least one card from the person they love (though better still, someone they don’t).
And naturally, this lovely tradition fuels a multi-billion pound industry. But that cynicism aside, just who was St Valentine, and how did he ever manage to create such a beloved and lucrative tradition?
Here’s a little known fact: kissing increases a person’s pulse to at least 110 beats per minute (bpm). Mind you, so does cutting the grass, but chances are kissing is more fun. And on Valentine’s Day especially, it’s kind of expected – together with flowers, chocolates, lingerie, champagne, cards and cash (if you’re lucky). But who precisely was the inspiration for this global love-in?
The Catholic Church recognises 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, realising the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death. How Mills & Boon.
Other stories, however, suggest that Valentine may have been killed for attempting to help Christians escape Roman prisons. According to one tale, 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. Bleaker, sure, but still very engaging.
But the truth is that the real inspiration will probably always stay shrouded in dewy-eyed tears. And frankly, isn’t it more romantic that way? Which brings us nicely to what history we do know about February 14th. While some scholars believe that Valentine’s Day is celebrated in February to commemorate the anniversary of Valentine’s death or burial – which probably occurred around AD 270 – others claim the Church may have decided to use it as a way of ‘Christianising’ the pagan celebration of Lupercalia.
Celebrated at the ides of February, or February 15th, Lupercalia was a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, as well as to the Roman founders Romulus and Remus.
Not Barbara Cartland, maybe, but intriguing. Sadly, the legend now takes a bit of an ugly turn: to begin the festival, members of the Luperci, an order of Roman priests, would sacrifice a goat for fertility and a dog for purification, stripping the goat’s hide into strips to dip into sacrificial blood.
They would then proceed to gently slap women with the goat hide, and far from being fearful, the young women apparently welcomed the attention, believing it would make them more fertile. Later that same day they would place their names in a big urn while bachelors would each choose a name and become paired to their chosen woman. Lupercalia did indeed survive the initial rise of Christianity, but was outlawed at the end of the 5th century when Pope Gelasius declared February 14th to be St. Valentine’s Day.
It took at least until the Middle Ages for our modern traditions to begin and currently the oldest known valentine is a poem penned in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London, and by the 17th century, it had become something of a date on the social calendar.
By the 18th century, gift-giving and exchanging handmade cards had become common in England, and today, many spend a month’s salary on trying to demonstrate their true love while others less fortunate try to cheer themselves up by celebrating SAD (that’s Single Awareness Day for the uninitiated).
Ten Unusual Facts about Valentine’s Day
- Valentine’s Day was first introduced to Japan in 1936 and has become widely popular. In fact, it is the only day of the year many single women will reveal their crush on a man by giving him chocolate. The men don’t return the favor until White Day, a type of “answer day” to Valentine’s Day, which is on March 14th.
- On Valentine’s Day 2010, 39,897 people in Mexico City broke the record for the world’s largest group kiss.
- According to Welsh tradition, a child born on Valentine’s Day would have many lovers. A calf born on Valentine’s Day, however, would be of no use for breeding purposes. And if hens were to hatch eggs on Valentine’s Day, they would all turn out rotten. Apparently.
- The saying “wearing your heart on your sleeve” is from the Middle Ages. Young men at this time would draw names of girls to see who would be their “Valentine” and then wear the name pinned on their sleeve for a week.
- On Valentine’s Day, many people buy flowers. Different colored roses have different meanings: red means love, yellow means friendship, and pink means friendship or sweetheart. Red carnations mean admiration, white carnations mean pure love, red chrysanthemums mean love, forget-menots mean true love, primroses mean young love, and larkspur mean an open heart.
- On February 14th 1971, Richard Nixon installed a secret taping system in the White House.
- Saint Valentine is the patron saint of lovers and engaged couples. He is also the patron saint of epilepsy (which he is said to have suffered), plague, greetings, young people, and bee keepers.
- “The High Court of Love” was established in Paris, France in 1400 and is the first known official celebration of Saint Valentine’s Day. Composed of 30 women, it dealt with love contracts, and betrayals.
- During the 1700s in England, a girl would pin four bay leaves to her pillow and eat a hardboiled egg, including the shell, on the eve of St. Valentine’s Day. Supposedly, if she dreamed of a boy that night, she would soon marry him.
- Richard Cadbury produced the first box of chocolates for Valentine’s Day in the late 1800s
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