History of Valentine's Day

The tragic, unromantic history of Valentine’s Day

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The true meaning of Valentine's Day takes a different light when you learn the history of Valentine's Day. Who was St Valentine anyhow? Here we look at Valentine's Day around the world.

Oh Valentine’s Day – the annual day of romance, roses, cards, hearts, chocolates and true love. At least, that’s what we've come to know as Valentine's Day. But how did this romantic holiday begin? You may be surprised by the religious, mysterious, bizarre and even bloody origins of the now commercialised and cheery day of love. What is the history of Valentine’s Day? Who was Saint Valentine?

Valentine’s Day is one of the most consumer-centric holidays of the year, with more than a billion Valentine’s Day cards sent annually, surpassing all other holidays except Christmas. But unlike many other holidays, there are a lot of unknown facts about the lovey-dovey holiday’s origins — in fact, some of the history of Valentine’s Day is nothing more than a confusing mix of age-old legends. So, what should be the true meaning of Valentine’s Day?

Who was St Valentine?

There is lots of confusion on which Saint Valentine the holiday refers to — the Catholic Church has three saints with the name 'Valentine', and it is unclear which of the three is the Valentine responsible for the original St Valentine’s Day celebrations.

Legend claims Valentine was a priest who secretly performed Christian-based marriages for soldiers and their lovers during the marriage-forbidden war times of secular Emperor Claudius II’s rule. St Valentine was discovered and imprisoned in a torture-ridden Roman jail, where he fell in love with a mysterious girl (believed to be his prosecutor's daughter). He sent her a love letter signed 'from your Valentine' right before his execution, thus originating the romantic sign-off still widely used today. Many are unsure of the truth of this legend; nonetheless, it portrays Saint Valentine as a compassionate hero of romance, perhaps explaining why his memory has grown in popularity over time.

Who was St Valentine?

History of Valentine’s Day: Pagan or Christian?

Valentine’s Day history has somewhat blurred origins. Why is Valentine’s Day celebrated in mid-February? While the date is meant to honour Saint Valentine’s death and burial, which supposedly occurred in mid-February around 270 AD, some historians believe the date could reflect the Catholic Church’s attempt to replace the ancient Pagan celebration of Lupercalia — a fertility festival for the pagan agricultural god Faunus — with a Christian event in memory of the saint.

At this pagan event, which traditionally took place on February 15th, Roman men allegedly drew the names of Roman women from a jar to be 'coupled' with during the festival, often leading to 'real' love, or so the story goes. Lupercalia became officially outlawed in the late 400s AD when Pope Gelasius replaced it by deeming February 14th Saint Valentine’s Day.

In short, it could be said that the meaning of Valentine’s Day commemorates St Valentine's brutal and bloody three-part execution – beating, stoning and beheading – because of his secret support of Christian marriages, and February 14th was chosen for the date he died or possibly because Christians needed to replace the pagan Lupercalia.

So, why the romance?

Up to this point, we see the holiday had no 'official' romantic connotations, other than the implications that Saint Valentine himself was a romantic and that pagans drew lovers during Lupercalia.

Over the coming centuries the holiday began to pick up romantic trends — Middle Age England and France, for instance, considered February 14th the first day of birds’ mating season, adding to the date’s theme of 'love'. Poets such as Chaucer and Shakespeare further romanticised the holiday by writing about Valentine’s Day in very love-stricken ways.

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Why Cupid and Valentine's Day?

The history of Valentine’s Day wouldn’t be complete without Cupid, but what’s the tie between Cupid and Valentine’s Day?

Before Cupid was a chubby little angel who shot love arrows, he was the handsome Greek god of love Eros – it was the Romans who turned him into what has become modern-day Cupid. Greek mythology is unclear on how Eros was 'conceived', but he was known for both his masculinity and his manipulation of both gods and mortals by toying with their emotions through the power of his golden arrows.

True meaning of Valentine's Day?Jacques-Louis' painting (1817) focuses on the late antique myth of Cupid and Psyche, a legend that saw Psyche condemned to wander the earth trying to win Cupid back, after he abandoned her.

The first Valentine’s Day greeting cards

The history of Valentine’s Day cards is a more modern story. Though vocal greetings were exchanged during the holiday’s 5th-century origins, writing and sending Valentine’s Day cards didn’t become common practice until the 1400s when the Duke of Orleans sent one to his wife from the Tower of London’s prison. King Henry V soon joined the trend by hiring a writer to write a Valentine’s card for Catherine of Valois.

When Valentine’s Day became more popular in England in the 1600s and America in the 1700s, hand-written greetings, as well as small gifts, became more common. America’s 'Mother of the Valentine', Esther Howland, is credited with the first homemade valentine cards, using elaborate lace, tapes and photos called 'scrap'.

Modern printing largely replaced the hand-written tradition in the 1900s, and in 1913 Hallmark began their first batch of mass-produced valentine’s cards.

Valentine’s Day around the world

Which countries celebrate Valentine’s Day? While countries like America, Canada, Mexico, France, England and Australia celebrate the typicaly Valentine’s Day traditions of cards, flowers, chocolates and fancy dates, some countries have some very unique traditions to celebrate the romantic holiday.

Add some international flair to your romantic ideas by see how Valentine's Day around the world is celebrate

Valentine's Day in the Netherlands

It’s perhaps no surprise that the tulip-loving nation's Valentine’s Day has relatively flowery origins. While the Valentijnsdag holiday didn’t become widely-celebrated until the 90s – when American culture was widely spreading – its origins stem from 'flower day', a day initiated by the National Organisation for Florists as a way to sell more flowers locally versus exporting them all on the romantic holiday. Thus, a card and flowers are still popular Valentine’s Day gifts for the Dutch. Read 10 rules to dating Dutch men and Dutch women.

How to say 'I love you' in Dutch: Ik hou van jou

How to say 'Happy Valentine’s Day' in Dutch: Fijne valentijnsdag (not commonly said)

Germany

Germans only joined the Valentine’s Day (Valentinstag) trend shortly after World War II, from American soldiers stationed in the country. Germany differs from the Netherlands in that cards are not as common; instead Germans prefer more elaborate love declarations. A common German Valentine’s tradition is to give a heart-shaped gingerbread cookie, complete with an affectionate icing message and a long ribbon so that the gift can be 'worn' before eaten. Learn more about dating in Germany.

How to say 'I love you' in German: Ich liebe Dich

How to say 'Happy Valentine’s Day' in German: Alles gute zum Valentinstag, Schönen Valentinstag, or Happy Valentinstag (not commonly said)

France

The French have been celebrating Valentine’s Day in some form since the Middle Ages, and it is still a very popular, enthusiastic and commercialised celebration today. In fact, more than 70 percent of the French take part in the day of love, spending an average of EUR 50 on gifts such as flowers or jewellery. See what other French dating rules you need to brush up on.

How to say 'I love you' in French: Je t'aime

How to say 'Happy Valentine’s Day' in French: Bonne St-Valentin

Belgium

As the holiday is not very commercialised there, the Belgians aren’t known for being especially festive on Valentine’s Day — but, as the chocolate capital of the world, it's no surprise chocolate features highly on the gift list, even if purchased at the last minute. Dating rules in Belgium, however, is where you might find more differences.

How to say 'I love you' in Belgium: Ik zie je graag or Ik hou van jou (Dutch), or je t'aime (French)

How to say 'Happy Valentine’s Day' in Belgium: just “Happy Valentine’s Day” (not commonly said)

Valentine's Day around the world

Spain

Spaniards celebrate St Valentine's Day similar to elsewhere but they also have local festivals with similar themes. Valencia, for example, celebrates Saint Dionysius Day (the Spanish patron saint of love) on 9 October by hosting festive parades and gifting women with traditional 'Mocadora' marzipan figurines, while those in Catalonia celebrate St George Day, also known as El Dia de la Rosa or El Dia de la Llibre (the day of the rose or book), on 23 April by gifting, as the names suggest, roses and books. In light of the commercialism surrounding these holidays, some Spaniards jokingly call the holdiay 'Día de El Corte Inglés', a popular Spanish department store. See what else to expect when dating the Spanish.

How to say 'I love you' in Spanish: Te amo or te quiero

How to say 'Happy Valentine’s Day' in Spanish: Feliz Dia de San Valentin

Portugal

While the Portuguese celebrate Valentine’s Day similar to the US and UK, they have one unique tradition: it’s custom to send a woman a gift basket of gourmet treats, and to send men a basket of their favourite liqueurs. 

How to say 'I love you' in Portuguese: Eu te amo or eu te quero

How to say 'Happy Valentine’s Day' in Portuguese: Feliz Dia dos Namorados

South Africa

In South African culture women aren’t shy on Valentine's Day; rather, they take after the ancient Romans by mimicking Lupercalia traditions, except instead of drawing names they pin the name of their crush to their shirt for all to see – whether the person knows it already or not.

How to say 'I love you' in Afrikaans: Ek het jou lief

How to say 'Happy Valentine’s Day' in Afrikaans: Gelukkige Valentynsdag

UK/Wales

Wales make their Valentine’s Day celebrations unique by not commemorating St Valentine, but rather their own St Dwynwen, the Welsh patron saint of lovers, on 25 January. On this day, love cards are replaced with love 'spoons', coming from an old Welsh tradition where men would hand-carve elaborate wooden spoons for their lovers with meanings behind each carved symbol.

Denmark

The Danish make their Valentine’s Day their own by sending folded white paper flowers known as 'snowdrops'. In addition, they add humour to their hand-written cards, as well as keep them anonymous to keep you guessing about your secret admirer.

Japan

On Valentine’s Day, Japanese dating strays away from traditional gender ideas – instead, women first give chocolates to the men. Much thought goes into whether it should be giri chocolate (for friends and acquaintances) or honmei chocolate (for your true love). Women are repaid exactly one month later on a day known as 'White Day', when men give women white chocolate or other tokens.

Philippines

Perhaps the most contrasting tradition occurs in the Philippines, where a Valentine’s Day trend has started of 'mass weddings' on 14 February – hundreds of couples gather in the same place to either exchange or renew their vows. In 2015, more than 700 couples took part in the new tradition. Because on the day of romance, why not make it a group affair?


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Photo credits (public domain): Pixabay.

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1 Comment To This Article

  • carrico posted:

    on 14th February 2017, 21:42:23 - Reply

    Check out Dan Lewis's blog (Now You Know) for 'sour' American valentines.