Valentine’s Day is now a huge source of income for flower sellers and candy makers and Hallmark (both cards and soupy made for TV movies). Americans are expected to spend an average of $196.31 on Valentine’s Day stuff, a 21 percent increase over 2019. And total Valentine’s Day spending in the United States is expected to top $27.4 billion. Is any part of Valentine’s Day’s history authentically romantic rather than commercial?
So were did this special day come from?
Valentine’s Day originated as a minor Christian feast day to honor a few Christian martyrs named Valentine, who rose to sainthood. The earliest Valentinus is said to have died in Africa, along with 24 soldiers. Later stories include an account of the imprisonment of Saint Valentine of Rome for ministering to Christians persecuted under Roman rule in the third century, and also performed weddings for Christian soldiers who were forbidden to marry . He apparently restored the sight of a blind girl who was the daughter of his jailer. According to an 18th century embellishment to the legend, he wrote the jailer’s daughter a letter signed “Your Valentine” before being led away to be beheaded.
Two centuries later, the Feast of Saint Valentine was established by Pope Gelasiuis I on February 14, the date of the death of Saint Valentine of Rome. It is believed he did this to “Christianize” a pagan fertility festival called Lupercalia, which was celebrated during the ides of February, or February 15.
For Lupercalia, Roman priests, known as the Luperci, would sacrifice a goat, to encourage fertility, and a dog, for purification purposes. The priests – or half-naked young men, if you would believe it – would then take to the streets holding strips of goat flesh dipped in sacrificial blood and gently slap both women and fields with the goat hide to encourage fertility. Not my cup of tea to be slapped in the face with a piece of raw goat dripping with blood!
The first mention of Valentine’s Day as a day celebrating romantic love is thought to have come from Geoffrey Chaucer in 1375 with a line from the poem “Parliament of Foules,” where he wrote, “For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s Day / Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.”
The day did not become fully associated with romantic love until the 14th and 15th centuries, when the idea of courtly love flourished, linked with the ‘lovebirds’ of early spring. The oldest existing valentine is a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife during his imprisonment in the Tower of London after being captured at the Battle of Agincourt.
The current celebration originated in the UK and before the 18th century, it was about exchanging gifts — gloves and spoons were traditional — and being someone’s valentine for a whole year. In 1797, a British publisher issued The Young Man’s Valentine Writer, which contained scores of sentimental verses for those poor young lovers unable to compose their own. Paper Valentines became so popular in England in the early 19th century that they were assembled in factories and were made with real lace and ribbons. By 1835, 60,000 Valentine cards were sent by post in the UK.
Victorian Valentine’s cards
Valentine Card circa 1910
The custom of sending cards, chocolates, and sweets also originated in the UK in the 1900s. In the United States, Hallmark first offered valentine cards in 1913 and began producing them in 1916. Today, Valentine’s Day is still mostly celebrated mainly in the United States and Britain, but also Canada, Mexico, France, and Australia and the United States.
So Happy Valentine’s Day to everyone. May your chocolates be sweet, your flowers fresh, and your cards beautiful!