The History and Facts about Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day is a massive holiday celebrated on February 14 in the US as well as other places in the world. People commemorate the day by exchanging flowers, greeting cards, chocolates and other gifts with their loved ones. Supposedly, all of those are done in the name of Saint Valentine. However, the history and the ancient Roman rituals of Valentine’s Day sharply vary from the manner in which it is celebrated today.  Back then gifts were not exchanged and neither did the celebration have any romantic undertone. So, what does the historical annals say about how Valentine’s Day was celebrated 18 centuries ago? And who was St. Valentine?

Join us, as we delve into the evolution of Valentine’s Day from the times of the ancient Romans, down to the Victorian Era in England and now in its ubiquitous and commercially-driven state.

St. Valentine’s Story in the Roman Empire

About 18 centuries ago, long before when the first greeting card was sent, the Romans were very much fond of persecuting people for their religious beliefs. Those who were Christians or sympathetic to the Christian faith faced the greatest ire of the Roman Emperors back then.  One of the people to fall victim to this wanton persecution was called Valentine or Valentinus. Actually, stories and some records from the Catholic Church show that there was not just one Valentine but three different saints that had the name Valentine. The precise details and life stories about these Valentines remain clouded in mystery.

In one account of this mystery, historians hold the view that Valentine was a Christian priest in the 3rd century AD. Considering how antagonistic the Empire was to Christians back then, this priest walked a very tight rope by preaching Christianity in the Empire. His case got even worse when he started officiating and conducting marriages of soldiers secretly. The Emperor Claudius II had issued a ban on soldiers getting married. According to Claudius II, single men with no marital attachments and responsibility made better and braver soldiers. These sorts of young men and soldiers were crucial to his expansionary efforts of the empire. Then, in comes Valentine, defying the Emperor, and preaching about Christ, and even encouraging soldiers to get married. These acts did not go down well with the emperor, and Valentine soon found himself in the gallows facing death.

History of Valentine's Day

A different account on the history of Valentine’s Day talks about a priest who signed of as “Your Valentine” in a letter to the daughter of his persecutor.

Another account slightly different than the above is of a priest that took to aiding  Christians flee Rome’s persecution. These charitable acts catapulted the priest to Rome’s most wanted person. Eventually, the priest himself was caught and killed. Some historians believe that before the priest was executed, he penned a letter to Julia, one of the daughters of his jailer (Asterius). Prior to that, the priest had restored the sight of Julia. It has even been said that Julia frequently paid the priest visits in his cell. In the letter, the priest signed off as: “Your Valentine”.  His compassion, even in times of near death, was enough to make Julia and her entire family convert to Christianity. In some quarters of this story, historians have claimed that the priest and Julia may have fallen in love with each other.  This claim is up to several debate.

In any case, if we are to go by this account, the patron saint was indeed the first person in history to send a greeting card. To this day, his signed-off expression (Your Valentine) is something that we use to sign off our greeting cards.

In all these accounts and legends, martyrdom was not what catapulted the priest into becoming the Patron Saint of “love” in the modern era. What is really emphasized in most of the stories about Saint Valentine is that he was a kind and compassionate person. Most legends about St. Valentine portray him as very sympathetic to the ills of the down-trodden in his society back then. It is therefore not surprising that Valentine remains a popular saint to this day.

The real question is how did the stories of a martyred Valentine come to be associated with the month of romance?

Origins of Saint valentine’s Day/Feast of Saint Valentine

Saints and preachers getting killed and martyred in ancient Roman Empire was not a rare occurrence. The Roman emperors suppressed religious freedom back then to curb dissent and internal upheavals. Additionally, the culture was completely pagan, and Christianity had yet to take any meaningful hold in the empire. Therefore, one can understand why Christianity’s one God doctrine was brutally crushed.  The days of when saints such as Valentine died are what eventually became the commemorative days after centuries. It is also possible that every priest that fell to the persecution of the Roman empire was automatically given the name ‘Valentine’. This will explain why there are so many accounts of the person Valentine. As a matter of fact, the Catholic church admits to having at least three different people with the title of Saint Valentine.

Valentine and Lupercalia

The pagan festival of Lupercalia bears huge semblance to the concept and celebration of Valentine’ Day.

The first Valentine is believed to have been killed in February around 270 A.D. Hence, subsequent generations took to commemorating his day as well as the deaths of other persecuted priests in February. Another explanation of the day falling in February has to do with the Christians’ attempt to ‘Christianize’ the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia. This was a fertility festival popular among pagan Romans. It is said to have occurred in mid-February in honor of Faunus, the god of agriculture. What is interesting about Lupercalia is that its relationship and romantic components bears a lot of semblance to the entire idea of Valentine’s Day. The Lupercalia could be described as the equivalent of dating apps today. The festival often entailed a lot of ritualistic exercises using goat hide and blood. After that, young women would then drop their names in a big urn (a tall rounded vase). The bachelors of the city would then come around picking a name from the urn. Subsequently, both the young man and woman were paired off and allowed to court before eventually getting married.

As Christianity gradually became the Roman Empire’s religion, the Lupercalia was outlawed around the 5th century by Pope Gelasius I due to its pagan nature. Little did anyone know that in its place would come something slightly similar in terms of love and romance: Valentine’s Day. In place of Lupercalia, Pope Gelasius I started the Feast of Saint Valentine in 496 AD, and the 14th of February was chosen as the day of the feast. The original idea was to feast and honor Saint Valentine’s resilience and determination to spread the Gospel of Christ. It had very little to do with love or any romantic undertones back then. Those would come much later in the Middle Ages.

The Centuries that Started the Day of Romance

The late Middle Ages (Dark Ages) could pat itself on the back for beginning what we now celebrate as a romantic holiday. Perhaps it was its way for atoning for all the horrid and terrible things that took place under its watch.  The true genesis of this is evident in the number of 14th century poems that were written in France and England. Most notable among these poems were the romantic and courtly love poems of Geoffrey Chaucer, an English poet, philosopher and astronomer. Geoffrey was a very prolific writer, and he is  regarded as the Father of English literature. Some of his critically acclaimed works such as Parlement of Foules (1382) spoke volumes about love and romance. One of the lines in his poem goes like this:

“For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.”

In Parlement of Foules by Geoffrey Chaucer (1382)

The above poem translates into today’s English as: “For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.” This poem was written by Geoffrey Chaucer to celebrate the love between Richard II of England and Anne of Bohemia. The poem does not explicitly make reference to February 14th’s Valentine’s Day celebration. Back in Chaucer’s time the Julian calendar that was being used meant that February 14 would have fallen on February 23 of our time (that is, the beginning of spring: when the birds come out).

Bottom line is that: prior to Chaucer  and his era, there exist no record of any romantic love tradition occurring on Valentine’s Day. Chaucer can therefore be described as the person who ushered in the romantic celebration of Valentine’s Day. He was the bridge between the martyrdom of the past and the capitalism-driven Valentine’s Day celebration of today.

Another very interesting poem that helped to transform the theme of Valentine’s Day came from Charles, Duke of Orleans. His poem reads as follows:

Je suis desja d’amour tanné            (I am already sick of love)
Ma tres doulce Valentinée…            (My very gentle Valentine)

Charles d’Orléans, Rondeau VI, lines 1–2

Charles wrote the above poem  to his beloved wife when he was a prisoner at the Tower of London in 1415. The Duke of Orleans, can be considered as another personality whose courtly love acts helped hurl Valentine’s Day into prominence. Charles’ poem is also considered the oldest piece of writing about valentine still intact to this day. There are also stories of Henry V recruiting the services of John Lydgate to write a valentine piece for Catherine of Valois.

Another interesting case is the letter penned by Margery Brews. In 1477, Margery Brews wrote to her future husband, John Paston. She addressed him as:

my right well-beloved Valentine

This address marks the earliest snippet of valentine in English. They can be found in the Paston Letters .

Also in Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 5, Ophelia makes mention of Saint Valentine’s Day.

To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,

All in the morning betime,

And I a maid at your window,

To be your Valentine.

Then up he rose, and donn’d his clothes,

And dupp’d the chamber-door;

Let in the maid, that out a maid

Never departed more.

— William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 5

Our current Valentine’s Day tradition and most poems of the day probably drew inspiration from the 18th century English nursery rhymes: Gammer Gurton’s Garland (1734).

18th Century to Present day

In the 18th century, art and literary works of the Roman Catholic priest and Hagiographer, Alban Butler, were full of sentimental and romantic undertones connected to Valentine’s Day. So were the ones from Savoy of Otton de Grandson, Pardo  of Valencia, and John Gower from England. By the 1900, the tradition of exchanging small gifts of affection and love notes started gaining grounds. The century also marked the beginning of mass-produced greeting cards with verses and sketches of romantic content. Historians like to call them “Mechanical Valentines”.  The British famous writer once described them as “cupid’s manufactory”. In the UK alone, there were about  3,000 women employed in that manufacturing sector. All of these could not have happened without the advances made in the printing technology.

History of Valentine’s Day in the U.K.

In England, the massive advancements in printing hardware had started to develop “paper valentines” in the 19th century. Real lace and ribbons were also used to decorate the gift cards and parcels that were exchanged back then. In the 1835 alone, over 60,000 Valentine cards were sent by post in the UK. As the postage fees dropped significantly, the number of valentine cards shot up. 1840 saw that number shoot to 400,000 with the invention of the postage stamp (Penny Black). This made sending of mails easier, and people could send them anonymously as well.

It was also during the 18th century that most of the Valentine’s Day symbols sprung up. Symbols such as heart-shaped outlines, doves and Cupid became very common. Famous confectionery companies also joined in on the bandwagon. For example, industry giant, Cadbury started producing Fancy Boxes of chocolates in 1868. The boxes were shaped in heart forms.

At the turn of the  20th century, gift items such as Jewelry started gaining some traction on Valentine’s Day. The celebration ever since kept growing in leaps and bounds. Today, about half the population spend money on their Valentines in the UK.  The figures are staggering and are more than a billion pounds annually. The  number of cards that are sent annually can be estimated to be in the tens of millions. With regards to how the day is celebrated by the clergy or religious organizations, the Anglican Church lets married people renew their vows on St. Valentine’s Day. This tradition of reciting vows is similar to what some married people did in the 18th century on Valentine’s Day. On the other hand, the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales often celebrate the day by offering counselling services and support to single people seeking spouses.  

History of Valentine’s Day in the U.S

History of Valentine's Day

Valentine’s Day celebration in the U.S.

Across the Atlantic, there were similar traditions taking place. Americans had the opportunity to exchange ready-made valentine cards as far back as the early 1700s. Esther Howland of Worcaster began mass-producing these cards in the 1840s. Her inspiration obviously came from across the pond, England. It all began when she took receipt of an English Valentine from a business associate of her father. For her pioneering works in the development of this holiday, Esther Howland is famously regarded as the “Mother of the Valentine”. There is also “Esther Howland Award for a Greeting Card Visionary” that is organized by the Greeting Card Association.

In our modern era, the Greeting Card Association calculates that about 145 million Valentine’s Day cards are exchanged among Americans every year. It means that slightly less than half of the population of the US spends money on their Valentines. This number is only second to Christmas cards in terms of the number of holiday cards sent annually. The traditional handwritten notes and cards are no longer a fad these days. They have given way to mass-produced cards and e-Valentine cards. The sheer size of the industry is gargantuan, and the figures from this now turned commercial holiday dwarfs the ones in the 18th century. The industry has spawned off into chocolates, flowers and even jewelries. It is estimated that America’s yearly expenditure on Valentine’s gifts is in the tens of billions of Dollars. Each individual spends a significant amount of money every year on his or her Valentine.

Valentine gifts and cards can be given to someone that you are not  romantically involved with. For example, Americans send half of their Valentine gifts to family members other than their spouse. Children are usually the greatest beneficiaries of the gifts. In terms of profession, teachers get a significant amount of the gifts as compared to any other profession in America. Technology has been the fulcrum for this flourishing holiday. Millions and millions of e-valentine and printable greeting cards are sent in America on Valentine’s Day.

Conclusion

Over the centuries, Valentine’s Day has been a festival and feast of  constantly moving themes and traditions. It has transformed from a holiday meant to commemorate martyred priests to one that is now mainstream and commercially driven by capitalism. Regardless of that, the the day is still one that is based on love and compassion. There are very few global holidays in the world that evokes the kind of emotions in lovers than Valentine’s Day. It has achieved all the above without even being a public holiday in any country of the world today.

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