The History of Valentine’s Day

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Every February 14, people around the world celebrate Valentine’s Day. It is a day for everything heart-shaped, flowers, jewelry, candy, and romance. 

Why is this day the day dedicated to romance? What’s with the hearts? And who or what is a valentine?

Is this all a giant conspiracy of greeting card manufacturers?

Learn more about Saint Valentine’s Day on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Valentine’s Day, which extremely secular today actually has its roots as the Christian feast day of Saint Valentine. 

Who is Saint Valentine? 

Valentine was an early Christian who lived in Rome. As with many saints from this period, there isn’t a whole lot that is known about him. In fact, there may have been more than one Saint Valentine from the early Christian church.

Saint Valentine of Rome is believed to have been martyred in the year 269 under the Emperor Claudius II 

Saint Valentine of Terni was a bishop who was martyred in the year 273 under Emperor Aurelian. 

A third Saint Valentine may have been martyred in the Roman province of Africa around this time, although almost nothing else is known beyond his name.

However, it has to be noted that historians aren’t even sure if Valentine of Rome and Valentine of Terni were in fact, separate people. 

On one hand, they were very close in time and location to each other, so they easily might have been the same person. On the other hand, Valentine was a pretty common name in the late imperial period, so it is very possible they might have been different people. 

Speaking of which, the name Valentine comes from the name Valens, which was a popular Roman name.  In addition to the three possible saints I just mentioned, there are 8 more saints who share the name Valentine, who aren’t lumped with this group and lived centuries later.

There was also a Pope Valentine who was pope for all of two months in the year 827. There is also a female Saint Valentina. 

The feast of Saint Valentine was established under Pope Gelasius I in the year 496 and it was intended to honor Saint Valentine of Rome.  Saint Valentine is the patron saint of beekeepers, as well as those who faint and have epilepsy or the plague. Things to keep in mind to put in your Valentine’s Day cards for next year.

So, OK, Valentine’s Day was originally a feast day for a saint of the same name?

What does that have to do with romance?

Some modern researchers have tried to link the feast of St. Valentine to the Roman festival of Lupercalia which was celebrated from February 13th to 15th. 

Lupercalia was a pretty wild celebration that involved sacrificing goats, and then taking the skins and running around naked with the skins hitting people with them. It was believed that if you were struck with the goatskins it would improve your fertility, so many women would line up to get struck on the hands. 

Fertility was as close as Lupercalia got to romance or love. 

While there were many pagan holidays that Christians tried to co-opt, Lupercalia seems to be one that they just tried to get rid of.

So again, where does the whole romance thing come in?

The earliest known association of the feast of Saint Valentine to romance was in a poem by Geoffrey Chaucer called “Parliament of Fowls” in 1382. 

The relevant passage in the poem, translated to modern English, is as follows:

“For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day

When every bird comes there to choose his match

Of every kind that men may think of

And that so huge a noise they began to make

That earth and air and tree and every lake

Was so full, that not easily was there space

For me to stand—so full was all the place.”

The reference in the poem to Valentine’s Day being the day which birds would start mating, which under the old Julien Calendar would today be February 23rd. 

The link to the saint himself and the idea of love had to do with Saint Valentine supposedly performing secret marriages between Christians when they weren’t allowed to marry under Emperor Claudius II.

It isn’t known how accurate these stories are, because they first appeared centuries after Valentine’s death.

While Chaucer’s work referencing Valentine’s Day and love was the first such mention, there were others soon after, indicating that the tradition either already widespread or grew rapidly.

In the year 1400, King Charles VI of France issued the Charter of the Court of Love, which was a festival that took place on February 14th and revolved around love. 

More and more references began appearing starting in the 15th Century, and February 14th had been clearly associated with love and romance by this time. 

The traditions of giving valentines, that being cards made of paper, began with people writing love letters to each other for Valentine’s Day. 

Valentine’s Day got more popular over time. It made a mention in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. 

“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

The origin of the “roses are red, violets are blue” rhyme dates back to Edmund Spenser’s poem The Faerie Queene from 1590.  He wrote:

“She bath’d with roses red, and violets blew,

And all the sweetest flowres, that in the forrest grew.

The modern version of this came from an 18th-century nursery rhyme which was:

“The rose is red, the violet’s blue,

The honey’s sweet, and so are you.

Thou art my love and I am thine;

I drew thee to my Valentine:

The lot was cast and then I drew,

And Fortune said it shou’d be you.”

All of this was still a far cry from the Valentine’s Day we know today. 

Our modern Valentine’s Day began, as so many modern things did, in the 19th century.  

The popularity of creating cards exploded in England. In 1835 over 60,000 valentine’s cards were sent. When postal rates dropped in 1840, there was a dramatic increase in card sending. Over 400,000 cards were sent in 1840.

With the lower postal rates, there was also an explosion in premade valentine’s day cards being printed. The premade cards eventually all but supplanted the handwritten valentine letters. 

The valentine’s trend was also happening on the other side of the Atlantic. American Esther Howland sold the first mass-produced valentines in the United States, which became the basis of the entire modern greeting card industry. Howland’s first cards were made by teams of women and consisted of lace, ribbon, and well as cardboard stock. 

Today the Greeting Card Association (yes there is an actual trade association for greeting cards) gives out the annual “Esther Howland Award for a Greeting Card Visionary”. 

According to the aforementioned Greeting Card Association, over 190 million valentines are sent each year in just the US.

The tradition of giving out candy developed in 1868 when the Cadbury company created a heart-shaped box of chocolates for Valentine’s Day. The company’s founder, John Cadbury, was a devote Quaker who wanted to encourage an alternative other than alcohol. 

In Japan, the tradition is for women to buy chocolates for men. This dates back to a misprinted newspaper advertisement from 1936 which accidentally told women to buy them for men. 

One of the unique Valentine’s Day candies is called conversation hearts. Those are those little candies with short sayings on them such as “be mine” or, “only you”. They originally got their start as a lozenge before the machines were converted to candy to make  Neco Wafers.

The first heart-shaped candies were made in 1901 and were much bigger than today. As such, they had much longer sayings like “HOW LONG SHALL I HAVE TO WAIT? PLEASE BE CONSIDERATE”

The tradition of roses goes way back. Ancient Greeks associated red roses with the goddess Aphrodite, the goddess of love. 

Again, the tradition of giving roses took off in the 19th century as commercial flower growing and delivery became a thing. 

There are a quarter billion roses grown and sold each year for Valentine’s Day, with roses representing 70% of all flowers sold. Flowers make up an estimated 36% of all money spent on Valentine’s Day. 

Today over $20 billion dollars is spent on Valentine’s Day, in just the United States. 75% of all money is spent by men. 

So if you are wondering if the entire holiday is just a made-up thing by greeting card and candy companies, there is one fact that you should know: Valentine’s Day is not an official holiday in any country in the world. 

In fact, since 1969, Saint Valentine’s Day isn’t even on the calendar anymore for the Catholic Church. 

However, if you really want to take your Valentine for the ultimate Valentine’s Day experience, you can take them to the Basilica di Santa Maria in Rome, where you can see on display, the exhumed skull of the original Saint Valentine.