Valentine’s Day: The Origin of The Day of Love

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Last Updated on 2024/02/20

The Roots of Valentine’s Day and Its Evolution as the Day Dedicated to Love and Affection.

Valentine’s Day, the festival of love, is observed annually on February 14th. Its roots trace back to ancient times, and it is named after Saint Valentine of Terni, who is venerated as the patron saint of lovers. This holiday was established in 496 by Pope Gelasius I. The Pope was believed to have replaced Lupercalia with the celebration of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but there is no historical evidence to support this. 

Related article: The origin of the story of Romeo and Juliet

Who was Saint Valentine?

Saint Valentine was a Roman priest who was imprisoned for aiding persecuted Christians during the early 4th-century Diocletianic Persecution. Accounts of his life were most likely destroyed during this time. By the 5th or 6th century, the “Passio Marii et Marthae” described his martyrdom, which may have borrowed elements from the torture of other saints. Bede’s Martyrology from the 8th century recorded that Saint Valentine was questioned by Roman Emperor Claudius II, who attempted to convert him to paganism, but Valentine instead tried to convert Claudius to Christianity. As a result, he was executed and is said to have performed a miracle by healing the blind daughter of his jailer.

St Valentine Kneeling in Supplication (David Teniers III, 1600s) – Valentine kneels to receive a rosary from the Virgin Mary
St Valentine Kneeling in Supplication (David Teniers III, 1600s) – Valentine kneels to receive a rosary from the Virgin Mary (source)

Before his death, Valentine is said to have healed the jailer’s daughter, Julia, and the jailer’s household converted to Christianity. Pope Julius I built a church over Valentine’s sepulchre, according to legend. The first “valentine” card is believed to have been written by Valentine himself on the night before his execution, addressed to Julia. Saint Valentine was buried in the Church of Praxedes in Rome and the almond tree near his grave remains a symbol of love and friendship. According to some legends, Saint Valentine performed secret Christian weddings for soldiers who were forbidden to marry. He is said to have given soldiers and persecuted Christians parchment hearts as a symbol of their vows and love. Saint Valentine wore a purple amethyst ring with Cupid engraved in it, a symbol of love under the Roman Empire. Amethyst is now considered the birthstone for February.

In recognition of his devotion and sacrifice, Saint Valentine is honored every year on February 14th. The occasion is widely celebrated as Lovers’ Day, and millions of people around the world exchange gifts, cards, and sweet messages to express their love and affection for one another.

Why Saint Valentine Is The Saint Of Lovers?

Saint Valentine is known for his association with love and romance, and there are many legends and stories that have contributed to this comparison. One of the most popular tales involves the reconciliation of two young men who were arguing. Saint Valentine approached them with a rose and invited them to hold it together, symbolizing unity and peace.

Another story tells of Saint Valentine’s role in the marriage of a young Christian woman named Serapia and a Roman centurion named Sabinus. Despite opposition from Serapia’s parents, Saint Valentine, who was serving as the Bishop of Terni at the time, performed the wedding ceremony after first baptizing Sabinus. This act earned him the title of the patron saint of marriage.

There is also a variant of the story that relates Saint Valentine to lovebirds. The tale states that he reconciled two young men by flying several pairs of pigeons around them, leading to the expression “lovebirds” becoming synonymous with lovers.

These legends and stories about Saint Valentine highlight his compassion, kindness, and devotion, and have helped cement his reputation as a symbol of love and romance. Today, Valentine’s Day is celebrated every year on February 14th in his honor, and is a day for couples to express their affection for each other.

What is the Origin and Evolution of Valentine’s Day?

The origin of Saint Valentine’s Day dates back to the 8th century in Christendom and is marked by the Western Church in honor of the Christian martyr Valentine. Despite some claims, there is no evidence linking this celebration to the pagan festival of Lupercalia, observed in Ancient Rome in mid-February in honor of Pan and Juno, gods of love, marriage, and fertility. Lupercalia was more focused on purification and health, with only slight connections to fertility, but no connections to love. Saint Valentine’s Day was not known to have romantic connotations until Chaucer’s 14th century poetry. The tradition of drawing names to make couples, commonly associated with Valentine’s Day, originated in the Middle Ages, with no connection to Lupercalia. The custom was discouraged by priests and replaced by a religious tradition of girls drawing the names of apostles from the altar, but this custom has a different origin dating back to the 13th century.

The Benedictines contributed to its diffusion, especially in France and England, through their numerous monasteries, having been entrusted with the basilica of San Valentino in Terni since the end of the second half of the seventh century.

Throughout the years, Valentine’s Day has come to be associated with love and romance. On this day, people all over the world exchange messages of love and affection, as well as gifts such as flowers, chocolates, and jewelry. 

The earliest recorded connection of Saint Valentine’s Day with romance is thought to be in Geoffrey Chaucer‘s “Parliament of Fowls” from 1382 and the emergence of courtly love. This dream vision features a gathering of birds choosing their mates. Chaucer wrote this piece to commemorate the first anniversary of King Richard II of England and Anne of Bohemia‘s engagement, both aged fifteen. He wrote in Middle English:

For this was on seynt Valentynes day
Whan every foul cometh there to chese his make
Of every kynde that men thynke may
And that so huge a noyse gan they make
That erthe, and eyr, and tre, and every lake
So ful was, that unethe was there space
For me to stonde, so ful was al the place.

Some suggest that Chaucer had in mind the feast day of St. Valentine of Genoa on May 3, not February 14. The idea of a Valentine’s Day tradition before Chaucer is uncertain and the notion of a connection to the Roman festival of Lupercalia has been widely repeated but lacks historical evidence. Other poets of the time also wrote about birds mating on Valentine’s Day, including Otton de Grandson, John Gower, and a knight named Pardo, but it is difficult to determine who influenced whom.

The first recorded celebration of Valentine’s Day as a day of love appears in the Charter of the Court of Love. Allegedly issued by Charles VI of France in 1400, it describes lavish festivities including feasting, poetry and song competitions, jousting and dancing, and disputes from lovers ruled on by attending ladies. No record of the court exists outside of the charter, and none of those named were present except Charles’s queen Isabeau of Bavaria, who might have made it all up while waiting out a plague.

The oldest Valentine’s Day message

The oldest known Valentine’s Day message is a poem from the 15th century, written by Charles, Duke of Orleans to his wife. It is a rondeau and begins with a romantic message. At the time, the duke was imprisoned in the Tower of London after his capture at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.

Je suis desja d’amour tanné
Ma tres doulce Valentinée …

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

The first known English Valentine’s Day greetings can be found in the Paston Letters, written in 1477 by Margery Brewes to her fiancé John Paston, addressing him as “my right well-beloved Valentine”. This gives evidence of the holiday’s celebration in England during the 15th century. The earliest reference to Valentine’s Day in English literature can be found in William Shakespeare‘s play “Hamlet“, written around 1600-1601, where the character Ophelia mentions the holiday in a rueful manner:

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

Valentine’s Day in Modern times

In the late 18th century, a British publisher released The Young Man’s Valentine Writer, offering pre-written romantic verses for those unable to compose their own. This sparked a trend of producing printed valentine cards, starting with simple sketches and verses, then moving onto more elaborate designs with real lace and ribbons. By 1835, 60,000 valentines were sent by post in the UK, despite high postage fees. The introduction of the Penny Black stamp in 1840 reduced postal rates and led to a surge in valentine mailings, reaching 400,000 in just one year. This made it possible for the first time to send anonymous cards, leading to the emergence of more risqué verse during the Victorian era. The popularity of valentine cards continued to grow, with over 3,000 women employed in their production, and the Laura Seddon Greeting Card Collection at Manchester Metropolitan University houses 450 valentine cards from early 19th-century Britain. The collection was published in the book Victorian Valentines in 1996.

Saint Valentine's Day 1861
Saint Valentine’s Day 1861 (source)

The celebration of Valentine’s Day in the United States was popularized by Esther Howland, a businesswoman from Worcester, Massachusetts. Inspired by an English Valentine she received, Howland began importing paper lace and floral decorations from England and produced the first mass-produced Valentines made of embossed paper lace in the country shortly after 1847. By 1849, Saint Valentine’s Day had become a national holiday in the US.

The shift from handwritten notes to mass-produced greeting cards took place in the 19th century. In the UK, almost half of the population spends money on Valentine’s Day gifts, with approximately £1.9 billion spent on cards, flowers, chocolates, and other presents in 2015. This holiday trade in the mid-19th century paved the way for the commercialization of other holidays in the US. The Greeting Card Association has been giving an annual “Esther Howland Award for a Greeting Card Visionary” since 2001, recognizing her pioneering efforts in the field.

In 1868, Cadbury, a British chocolate company, introduced a heart-shaped box of chocolates called Fancy Boxes for Valentine’s Day. The gift of chocolates soon became a hallmark of the holiday. In the later part of the 20th century, the tradition of exchanging cards evolved into exchanging all types of gifts, including jewelry.

According to the U.S. Greeting Card Association, approximately 190 million Valentine’s Day cards are sent annually in the US, with half of them being given to family members other than a spouse, typically children. When including valentine-exchange cards made in school activities, the number increases to one billion, with teachers being the recipients of the most valentines. In the US, Valentine’s Day spending has steadily increased over the years, with the average spending per person rising from $108 in 2010 to $131 in 2013.

With the rise of the internet, new Valentine’s Day traditions have emerged, such as sending digital greetings like e-cards, love coupons, and printable greeting cards. Some consider Valentine’s Day to be a holiday that is overly commercialized.

In modern times, the Lutheran Church and Anglican Church have services for St. Valentine’s Day, including an optional ceremony for renewing marriage vows. In 2016, the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales introduced a novena prayer for single individuals seeking a spouse before Valentine’s Day.

In recent decades, these traditions have spread to other nations, similar to Halloween or certain elements of Christmas (such as Santa Claus).

Valentine’s Day is observed in numerous countries across East Asia, with Singaporeans, Chinese, and South Koreans being among the highest spenders on Valentine’s Day gifts.

Overall, Valentine’s Day is a day to celebrate love and affection between partners, friends, and family. It is a time to reflect on the meaning of love and to express appreciation for the special people in our lives.

Featured image: source

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