It can seem like February 14th is a day when love and romance are capitalised on and red and pink hearts are absolutely everywhere, but Valentine’s Day has a much more storied history than you might think.
The roots of this annual celebration are a little unclear, but most historians agree that it has its beginnings in Roman times. The month of February was associated with romance long before any saints came into the picture, with the end of beginnings of spring bringing festivals celebrating fertility and nature.
But the legend of Saint Valentine, and if they ever even existed, seems to be the amalgamation of several figures. The most popular figure is a bishop and later Christian martyr born in Italy in 226 AD. When Emperor Claudius II outlawed marriage for young men to ensure enough soldiers for his armies, Valentine performed marriages in secret, wearing an amethyst ring engraved with an image of Cupid, a Roman symbol of love. When Valentine was caught and imprisoned, he sent love letters signed ‘from your Valentine’, hence the popular phrase.
“Romantic origin story has faded over time”
This romantic origin story has faded over time, but as a saint, Valentine became super popular in Medieval England and France. There he was also associated with other things like beekeepers and the plague, an association which is somehow not as popular in the modern day.
Meanwhile, the pagan festival ‘Lupercalia’ on February 15th, which was intended to purify Rome of evil spirits and bring about health and fertility to the citizens, was by 1300 taken by the Christians and moved instead to February 14th, used as a day for mass marriage ceremonies.
“The oldest valentine poem known to exist is from 1415”
In England, poet Geoffrey Chaucer of The Canterbury Tales fame began a craze in courtly love, which valued nobility and chivalry and started the exchange of poems and small trinkets. While the oldest valentine poem known to exist is from 1415, by the mid-1600s tokens were a common way to show affection between friends, family, and lovers. Printed cards entered circulation in the 1700s, and Cadbury’s introduced boxed chocolates in 1868. By 1900s, the Victorians were mass-printing of Valentine’s cards, and now over 1 billion cards are sent each year.
Valentine’s Day is a significant religious, cultural, and commercial holiday. Its beginnings in secret marriages made it clear from the start that it was all about the celebration of romantic love, but it has increasingly been a day to celebrate all kinds of love, too. ‘Galentine’s Day’, originally from Season 2 of Parks and Recreation, has become established in everyday culture, with February 13th often seen as an unofficial holiday to celebrate love between female friends.
“Still serves as a religious festival in various parts of the world”
For singletons, it can be a day to celebrate with friends or with some self-love and TLC, but it also still serves as a religious festival in various parts of the world. Some churches celebrate the feast day on July 6th or July 30th, and different countries have different traditions. In Lebanon, it’s a common day for engagements, while in Finland and Estonia it’s a day typically reserved for the celebration of friends, rather than significant others. The history of Valentine’s Day is a long one but undoubtedly all about love, celebrated across the world in all kind of ways.