The next big commemorative day on the calendar is February 14—Valentine’s Day, which has gained the tradition as the day of love, or the day when people express their romantic love for others.
The day is marked by various token gifts of love including lavish bouquet of flowers, chocolates, greeting cards, jewelry, and heart shaped balloons. It’s also traditional for people to take their romantic partners on lavish lunch or dinner dates, although this year may see a lull in this tradition as a result of COVID-19 restrictions.
Valentine’s Day celebration is a tradition that goes back several years, but how did it come about?
It was once believed that Valentine’s Day originated to celebrate a silent screen actor Rudolph Valentino who had the reputation as a very passionate lover of the 1920s, but that’s fake news, since Valentine’s Day preceded Valentino.
What seems more accurate is that Valentine’s Day has its origin in a Catholic saint, St. Valentine. Originally the day was known as St. Valentine’s Day.
The Legend of St. Valentine
The Catholic Church recognizes at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom were martyred. One legend contends that Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome. When Emperor Claudius II decided single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius ll and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered him killed.
Another explanation is it was Saint Valentine of Terni, a bishop, who the day commemorates. The bishop was also put to death by Claudius II.
Other stories suggest that Valentine may have been killed for attempting to help Christians escape harsh Roman prisons, where they were often beaten and tortured. According to legend, an imprisoned Valentine sent the first “valentine” greeting himself after he fell in love with a young girl–possibly his jailor’s daughter–who visited him during his confinement. Before his death, it is alleged he wrote her a letter signed “From your Valentine,” a popular expression sent every Valentine’s Day.
Whoever was the original St. Valentine, his appeal remains as a sympathetic, heroic, romantic figure. By the Middle Ages, perhaps thanks to this reputation, Valentine became one of the most popular saints in England and France.
A pagan festival
While some believe Valentine’s Day is celebrated to commemorate the anniversary of St. Valentine’s death, others claim the Christian church may have decided to place St. Valentine’s feast day in the middle of February in an effort to “Christianize” the pagan celebration of Lupercalia. Celebrated at the ides of February, or February 15, Lupercalia was a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, and to the Roman founders Romulus and Remus.
According to legend during this festival all the young women in the city would place their names in a big urn. The city’s bachelors would each choose a name and become paired for the year with the woman he chose. These matches often ended in marriage.
Lupercalia survived the initial rise of Christianity but outlawed, deemed “un-Christian,” at the end of the 5th century. At that time, Pope Gelasius declared February 14 St. Valentine’s Day, but it was later that the day became associated with romantic love.
During the Middle Ages, it was commonly believed in France and England that February 14 was the beginning of birds’ mating season, adding to the idea that Valentine’s Day should be a day for romance. The English poet Geoffrey Chaucer was the first to record St. Valentine’s Day as a day of romantic celebration in his 1375 poem “Parliament of Foules,” writing, “For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day / When every fool cometh there to choose his mate.”
Valentine greetings were popular as far back as the Middle Ages, though written Valentine’s didn’t begin to appear until after 1400. The oldest known Valentine greeting still in existence was a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Several years later, it is believed King Henry V hired a writer named John Lydgate to compose a valentine note to his first wife, Catherine of Valois.
Cupid is a character often portrayed on Valentine’s Day cards as a naked cherub launching arrows of love at unsuspecting lovers. Cupid was a Roman God rooted in Greek mythology as the Greek god of love, Eros.
According to the Greek Archaic poets, Eros was a handsome immortal who played with the emotions of gods and men, using golden arrows to incite love and leaden ones to sow aversion. It wasn’t until the Hellenistic period that Cupid was portrayed as the mischievous, chubby child portrayed on Valentine’s Day cards.
Typical Valentine’s Day Greetings
In Great Britain, Valentine’s Day began to be popularly celebrated around the 17th century. The tradition quickly spread over the tears globally, including the U.S. and the Caribbean region.
By the middle of the 18th century, it was common for friends and lovers of all social classes to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes. By1900, printed cards began replacing written letters due to improvements in printing technology. Ready-made cards were an easy way for people to express their emotions in a time when direct expression of one’s feelings was discouraged.
Americans probably began exchanging hand-made valentines in the early 1700s. In the 1840s, Esther A. Howland began selling the first mass-produced valentines in America. Howland, known as the “Mother of the Valentine,” made elaborate creations with real lace, ribbons and colorful pictures. Today, according to the Greeting Card Association, an estimated 145 million Valentine’s Day cards are sent (by mail and via the Internet) each year, making Valentine’s Day the second largest card-sending holiday of the year, after Christmas.
In the 20th century as businesses grew, the celebration of Valentine’s Day became much more commercial, characterized by the so-called color of love—red.
From early January stores and shops in Florida and across the rest of the U.S. carry displays of greeting cards, balloons, chocolates in a variety of packages, teddy bears, T-shirts and other clothing depicting greetings of love.
With flowers, particularly red roses, being a prominent expression of love on Valentine’s Day, flower shops usually make significant profits this day, often exceeding profits made on Mother’s Day.
The aggressive commercialism that is currently associated with Valentine’s Day places tremendous pressure on people to send their significant other or love interests elaborate tokens of love.
This year, it’s very doubtful, the presence of COVID-19 will likely put a damper on expressing love the usual way on this special day. Ironically, the various lifestyle stresses created by COVID-19 may make expressions of love more expected and appreciated this Valentine’s.
HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY
Note: Aspects of this article was sourced from https://www.history.com/topics/valentines-day/history-of-valentines-day-2