Valentine’s Day occurs every February 14. Chocolates, flowers, and gifts are exchanged between loved ones, all in the name of St. Valentine. But who is this mysterious saint and where did these traditions come from? Find out about the meaning and history of Valentine’s Day from the ancient Roman ritual of Lupercalia that welcomed spring to the card-giving customs of Victorian England.
Where did Valentine’s Day originate from? The history of the holiday and the story of its patron saint are shrouded in mystery. We do know that February has long been celebrated as a month of romance and that St. Valentine’s Day as we know it today contains vestiges of both Christian and ancient Roman traditions. But who was Saint Valentine and how did he become associated with this ancient rite?
The Catholic Church recognizes at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom were martyred.
According to one legend, an imprisoned Valentine actually 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 that he wrote her a letter signed from your Valentine, an expression that is still in use today. Although the truth behind the Valentine legends is murky, the stories all emphasize his appeal as a sympathetic, heroic and—most importantly—romantic figure. By the Middle Ages, perhaps thanks to this reputation, Valentine would become one of the most popular saints in England and France.
While some believe that Valentine’s Day is celebrated in the middle of February to commemorate the anniversary of Valentine’s death or burial which probably occurred around A.D. 270 others claim that 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 as well as to the Roman founders Romulus and Remus.
The Pagan holiday of Lupercalia is described by History as “a bloody, violent, and sexually charged celebration awash with animal sacrifice, random matchmaking, and coupling in the hopes of warding off evil spirits and infertility.” No one knows the exact origin of Lupercalia but it has been traced back as far as the 6th century B.C.
Its true Valentine’s Day uses some of Lupercalia’s symbols intentionally or not such as the color red which represented a blood sacrifice during Lupercalia and the color white which signified the milk used to wipe the blood clean and represents new life and procreation.
Like many ancient traditions, there’s a lot of haziness surrounding the origins and rituals of Lupercalia and how they influenced Valentine’s Day. Lupercalia is no longer a mainstream holiday.
Lupercalia survived the initial rise of Christianity but was outlawed as it was deemed un-Christian at the end of the 5th century when Pope Gelasius declared February 14 St. Valentine’s Day. It was not until much later, however, that the day became definitively associated with love. During the Middle Ages it was commonly believed in France and England that February 14 was the beginning of birds’ mating season which added to the idea that the middle of 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 / Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.” Hence the phrase, love birds!
Valentine greetings were popular as far back as the Middle Ages though written Valentines didn’t begin to appear until after 1400. The oldest known valentine still in existence today was a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt. (The greeting is now part of the manuscript collection of the British Library in London, England.)
Who Is Cupid? Cupid is often portrayed on Valentine’s Day cards as a naked cherub launching arrows of love at unsuspecting lovers. But the Roman God Cupid has his roots in Greek mythology as the Greek god of love, Eros. Accounts of his birth vary; some say he is the son of Nyx and Erebus; others, of Aphrodite and Ares; still others suggest he is the son of Iris and Zephyrus or even Aphrodite and Zeus (who would have been both his father and grandfather).
According to the Greek Archaic poets, Eros was a handsome immortal 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 he began to be portrayed as the mischievous chubby child he’d become on Valentine’s Day cards.
In Great Britain, Valentine’s Day began to be popularly celebrated around the 17th century. By the middle of the 18th it was common for friends and lovers to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes and by 1900 printed cards began to replace written letters due to improvements in printing technology.
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 known as scrap.
Today, 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 card-sending holiday of the year (more cards are sent at Christmas).
In modern days, Valentine’s Day is an opportunity for businesses to arouse feeling of romance to convince people to spend money to express love.
Americans are expected to shell out roughly $25.9 billion on Valentine’s Day marking one of the highest spending years on record despite inflationary pressures and the looming possibility of a recession according to a survey from the National Retail Federation (NRF).
The average lovebird will spend $192.80 on their significant others marking a 10 percent increase from $175.41 last year and the second-highest figure since the group began tracking spending on the holiday nearly two decades ago. Roughly $14 of the $17 rise in spending per consumer will be used for pets, friends, co-workers, and teachers.
Valentine’s Day shopping peaked in 2020, one blissful month before the depths of the pandemic began with a record $27.8 billion spent.
Candy (56 percent), greeting cards (40 percent), and flowers (37 percent) are the most popular gifts. Around 31 percent state they plan to go out this year up from 24 percent in 2021 which should add $4.3 billion to the recovering hospitality sector. Around 22 percent said that they plan to purchase jewelry and the NRF predicts $6.2 billion will be spent marking the highest amount spent on jewelry in the survey’s history. These figures only represent what will be spent in the U.S. but Valentine’s Day is celebrated by consumers across the world.
All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.
―Charles M. Schulz