The History Behind Valentine’s Day

With Valentine’s Day here, love (and maybe some resentment) is in the air. Couples are yet again reminded to declare their undying love for one another by gifting heart-shaped chocolates, beautiful fresh flowers, cuddly teddy bears, and….good ol’ consumerism. Whether it be a store bought card, a diamond necklace, or a plush toy heart that sings “I Will Always Love You”, there’s no denying that like most other holidays, the true meaning behind Valentine’s Day has gotten a bit of a makeover thanks to our slightly materialistic, remarkably holiday obsessed, consumerist society. Of course, there’s no harm in engaging in a little Valentine’s Day spirit, it is a day to celebrate love after all, but is that how it started out to be? Curious about the origins of this cheesy little holiday, I decided to look into the history behind Valentine’s Day and how exactly it began.

a painting of Saint Valentine

As it turns out, there’s not quite one singular, definite origin but it’s commonly agreed that the Romans most definitely had something to do with it. The festival of Lupercalia, celebrated on February 15, was a annual ritual practiced by the ancient Romans to promote fertility. Although I won’t go into detail about all of the practices commemorated during this — um, “unique” holiday, it’s worth mentioning that one of them involved an interesting matchmaking lottery. Young men were to draw the name of a woman from a jar and then, subsequently that pair would be partners during the festivities. If the match stuck, and it often did, the partners would get married post festival.

Another theory stems from Roman-Catholic connections. During the 1400’s, Saint Valentine was described as a priest who assisted in the marriage of Christian couples despite direct orders of Emperor Claudius II. The Emperor looked down upon marriage as he believed single men made for better soldiers. St. Valentine found this to be unfair and oversaw several marriages in secret. However, the Emperor eventually found out about St. Valentine and his black market marriages, sentencing the Saint to jail and ultimately, execution. Saint Valentine’s execution was martyred by the public and February 14th, the day of his death, was celebrated in years to come. It is also thought that while he was in prison, Valentine had sent a card to a lady whom he had fallen in love with, signed “From your Valentine”.

a Victorian floral dictionary depicting the symbolic connotations of flowers

As time passed, the holiday slowly began to commercialize into something more sentimental. Romanticized by the likes of Shakespeare and medieval poet Geoffrey Chaucer, the idea of celebrating love on February 14th quickly gained steam in Britain and the majority of Europe. Handmade paper cards were commonly exchanged during the Middle Ages. In the 1700’s, the poetic “language of flowers” was introduced and ladies began to fawn over floral dictionaries that described the symbolic meanings of a variety of blossoms. Thought to be favoured by Roman goddess of love, Venus, the red rose came to embody her likeness.

a vintage valentine

Finally, the holiday began to make its name in more recent times with help from the industrial revolution. In the 19th century, factories began to make cards, setting the stage for modern day Valentine’s greetings. Then, with the establishment of Hallmark Cards in 1913, the mass production of valentines set in motion the manufacturing of a variety of other commercialized Valentine’s Day memorabilia.

Since then, February has become a month of doting lovers and angry single people who just want some peace. Despite its long, winding, and slightly dark, history, it’s now most commonly known as a day to love Love! Whether you’ll be celebrating the 14th with your loved one, or simply eating half-priced chocolate the next day, have a lovely Valentine’s Day!






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