What’s the story behind Valentine’s Day?
Valentine's Day is celebrated around the world on February 14. In the UK and worldwide, candies, flowers and gifts are exchanged between loved ones to celebrate Valentine's Day. It is also one of the busiest days for restaurants. Brits spent approximately £1.37 billion on Valentine's Day in 2022, while it is expected that Americans will spend $26 billion this year.
But who is this mysterious saint, and where did these traditions come from?
In this article, Dr Richard Dune explores the meaning and history of Valentine's Day, from ancient Roman rituals to Victorian card-giving customs.
The lasting legend of St. Valentine
What's the origin of Valentine's Day? Its history and that of the patron saint are shrouded in mystery. Who was Saint Valentine, and how did he become associated with this ancient ritual?
There are at least three martyrs named Valentine or Valentinus in the Catholic Church. According to legend, Valentine was a priest in Rome in the third century. Claudius II banned marriages for young men because he thought single men made better soldiers. As Valentine realised the decree was unfair, he defied him and continued to marry young lovers in secret. Claudius ordered Valentine's death when he found out what he had done. Others say Valentine's Day is named after Saint Valentine of Terni, a bishop. Claudius II beheaded him, too, just outside Rome.
Some stories say Valentine was killed for attempting to help Christians escape harsh Roman prisons. An imprisoned Valentine is said to have sent the first "Valentine" after falling in love with a young girl, possibly his jailor's daughter. Before he died, he wrote her a letter signed "From your Valentine”, an expression that still lives on today. While the Valentine legends are murky, they all emphasise his sympathetic, heroic, and, most importantly, romantic appeal. As a result of this reputation, Valentine became one of England's and France's most popular saints during the Middle Ages.
The pagan origins of Valentine’s Day
Some think Valentine's Day is celebrated in February to remember Valentine's burial or death, which probably happened around AD 270. It's been claimed that the Christian Church shifted St. Valentine's day to February to "Christianise" Lupercalia, a pagan holiday. Lupercalia was a fertility festival celebrated on the ides of February, or February 15, in honour of Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture.
Luperci, a Roman priest order, would gather at a sacred cave where Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were believed to have been cared for by a she-wolf. For fertility, priests sacrificed a goat, and for purification, they offered a dog. They would then strip the goat's hide into strips, dip them into the sacrificial blood, and gently slap women and crop fields. The Roman women welcomed the touch of the hides because they believed it would make them more fertile. Later in the day, all the young women in the city would place their names in a big urn. Each bachelor picked a name and was paired with the woman he chose for the year. Marriages often resulted from these matches.
What is the meaning of Valentine's Day?
The Lupercalia festival survived the rise of Christianity but was outlawed by Pope Gelasius when he declared February 14 St. Valentine's Day, at the end of the 5th century. It wasn't until later that the day was definitively associated with love. Valentine's Day was considered a day for romance during the Middle Ages since February 14 was the beginning of the birds' mating season in France and England.
In his 1375 poem "Parliament of Foules”, Geoffrey Chaucer describes St. Valentine's Day as a day of romantic celebration:
"For that was sent on St. Valentine's Day when every foul came there to choose his mate."
The Middle Ages were full of Valentine's greetings, but written ones only appeared after 1400. Among the oldest known Valentines today is a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at Agincourt. It's now in the British Library's manuscript collection in London. King Henry V commissioned a writer named John Lydgate to compose a Valentine's Day note for Catherine of Valois several years later.
What is the link between Cupid and Valentine’s Day?
In Valentine's Day cards, Cupid is frequently depicted as a naked cherub shooting love arrows at unsuspecting lovers. Cupid, the Roman god of love, originates in Greek mythology as Eros, the Greek god of love. Some say Cupid was born to Nyx and Erebus, others say he was born to Aphrodite and Ares, and others suggest he was born to Iris and Zephyrus or even Zeus and Aphrodite.
In the Greek archaic poetic tradition, Eros was a handsome immortal who played with the emotions of Gods and men, inciting love with golden arrows and sowing aversion with leaden ones. His portrayal as a mischievous, chubby child on Valentine's Day cards began in the Hellenistic period.
Valentine’s Day greetings and gifts
Valentine's Day was first celebrated in the 17th century in Great Britain before spreading worldwide. As early as the 18th century, friends and lovers of all social classes exchanged handwritten notes or small tokens of affection. As printing technology improved, printed cards replaced written letters by 1900, popularising Valentine's Day greetings even more.
In the early 1700s, Americans began exchanging hand-made Valentines. Esther A. Howland began selling mass-produced valentines in the 1840s. Howland, commonly known as the "Mother of Valentines", fashioned elaborate creations out of real lace, ribbons, and colourful scraps of paper. According to the Greeting Card Association, an estimated 145 million Valentine's Day cards are sent each year, making Valentine's Day the second largest holiday for sending cards (more cards are sent for Christmas).
Valentine's Day's origins remain a mystery, which may explain its popularity. No matter what, more people worldwide are celebrating this day, sending gifts and messages to loved ones, eating out and having fun. Valentine's Day is also a big deal for many businesses, some dedicated solely to it.
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About Dr Richard Dune
Dr Richard Dune is a leading health and social care governance expert. Throughout his career, he has worked in various settings across the UK, including NHS Trusts, research and development, academic institutions, and private companies.
His work primarily focuses on developing, deploying and evaluating technologies, such as clinical decision support systems, educational technologies, workforce development and regulatory compliance solutions.
Dr Dune regularly writes about topical issues affecting the UK's health and social care sectors. Additionally, he speaks at conferences, stakeholder workshops, and professional forums. Dr Dune is also a research fellow at University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire in the Research, Development and Innovation department. His other passions include content development, education, and coaching. Click here to read more articles by Dr Dune.
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