Unveiling the History of Valentine's Day

February 5, 2024

Unveiling the History of Valentine's Day

Learn how this holiday has shaped our ideas of passion and influenced our celebration of love

Love is a universally powerful emotion. Its magnitude and impact have been written about in songs, portrayed in film, and captured in images. While its influence can be seen in even the most ordinary moments, its importance is perhaps most emphasized on Valentine’s Day. Originating from ancient customs and evolving through centuries, this day has become synonymous with love, romance, and expressions of affection. In this blog, we delve into the intricate tapestry of the history of Valentine's Day, tracing its roots, understanding the individuals who contributed to its tradition, and unraveling the enduring legacy it leaves behind.


Valentine’s Day's Supposed Roman Roots

Per some accounts, the modern celebration of Valentine’s Day has roots that date back to the 6th-century BC pagan fertility festival of Lupercalia. Although some historians contradict this well-touted belief, its persistent presence in Valentine’s Day lore makes it noteworthy, even if not entirely credible. 

Lupercalia was annually observed in the middle of February, as this month was believed to mark the transitional beginning from winter to spring. Dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, as well as to the Roman founders Romulus and Remus, many of the festival celebrations were aimed at preparing the city and its citizens for a year of agricultural and cultural prosperity. 

The festival includes sacrificing animals, the playful slapping of women with strips of the sacrificed animals' hide to promote fertility, and the city-wide random coupling of men and women. According to legend, single women would write their names on clay tablets and drop them into a large urn. Later, bachelors would take turns selecting a tablet, and the resulting pairs would stay connected until the following year’s festival. Many of these matches often ended in marriage, thus furthering the event's romantic connections. While subtle parallels may be drawn between Lupercalia and modern-day Valentine’s Day traditions, we can all be grateful many of the practices did not stick. 

Further speculation about the significance of Lupercalia to Valentine’s Day can be connected to the Christian evangelization of the Roman empire. Around the 5th century BC, the Christianization of pagan festivals had become a common practice, as the Church sought to replace pagan celebrations with Christian feasts. As it happened, Lupercalia coincided with the feast day of St. Valentine, whose official day of remembrance was February 14th. Completely independent of Lupecalia, historians have postulated that a more plausible connection exists between the holiday and the aforementioned Christian martyr, even if only by name. Unfortunately, the story of St. Valentine is more tragic than romantic. 


The Legend of St. Valentine

The legend of St. Valentine begins in the 3rd century BC with Emperor Claudius II's quest to build the world’s strongest army. Believing unmarried and fatherless men created the best soldiers, he banned marriages for all young men. Valentine realized the injustice of the decree and defied Claudius by performing marriages for young lovers in secret. When his actions were discovered, he was arrested and sentenced to death by beheading. 

While waiting in prison, he became acquainted with his jailers, one of whom had a blind daughter. When Valentine met the daughter, he cured the little girl of her blindness, resulting in the immediate conversion of her entire family. Before his execution, Valentine sent the little girl a note signed "from your Valentine," laying the foundation for the present-day romantic moniker.

It’s important to note that not all religious historians believe this version of events. Some believe a second martyred man, Valentine, bishop of Terni, takes credit for the holiday's namesake. Because of the similarities of these accounts, it’s thought they may refer to the same person. Enough confusion surrounds the true identity of St. Valentine that the Catholic Church discontinued liturgical veneration of him in 1969, though his name remains on its list of officially recognized saints.

Geoffrey Chaucer Links Valentine’s Day to Romance

Although the truth behind the Valentine legends is murky, the stories all emphasize his appeal as a sympathetic, heroic, and, most importantly, romantic figure. This is why it’s believed that over centuries, many elements of these two men’s stories were intertwined to create the fabric of many present-day Valentine’s traditions. By the Middle Ages, thanks to this reputation, Valentine would become one of the most popular saints in England and France.

Perhaps that’s why, in the 14th century, Valentine's Day took a romantic turn, thanks to the influence of English poets like Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer’s popular writing of the time told tales of unrequited love between brave knights and already betrothed noble ladies. In his poem "Parliament of Fowls," Chaucer reinforced the tradition of courtly love with the celebration of St. Valentine's Day by stating birds chose their mates on February 14, “For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day when every bird comes there to choose his mate.”

By the 1400s, nobles inspired by Chaucer had begun writing poems that they called “valentines” to their love interests. In fact, the first known documented use of the phrase “my Valentine” was written by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his bride Bonne of Armagnac in 1415. Of course, she was imprisoned in the Tower of London following Charles's capture at the Battle of Agincourt, so the context surrounding the note might not be as romantic as initially perceived.      


The Rise of Written Valentines

The tradition of exchanging love notes on Valentine's Day gained widespread popularity during the 17th century as handwritten letters expressing love and affection became a common practice among friends and lovers. By the 18th century, literacy and printing advancements led to the widespread use of printed cards, known as "mechanical valentines." Meticulously designed and printed with ornate illustrations, these pre-printed cards enabled people of all classes to partake in the growing tradition of exchanging Valentine's cards.

In the mid-19th century, Esther Howland, an enterprising woman from Worcester, Massachusetts, carved her place in history as the "Mother of the American Valentine." Howland started a successful greeting card business by creating elaborate handmade cards adorned with lace, ribbons, and colorful pictures. Her efforts rapidly popularized the commercial aspect of Valentine's Day cards in the United States and paved the way for Hallmark in the early 20th century. 

Hallmark’s Relationship to Valentine’s Day

Despite popular belief, Hallmark did not begin selling Valentine’s Day cards, but rather postcards. Founded in 1910 in Kansas City, Missouri, by brothers Joyce Clyde, William, and Rollie Hall, Hallmark didn’t have a dedicated storefront, choosing instead to sell postcards out of a shoe box. The breakthrough for Hallmark came in 1913 when, in taking note of the public’s desire for more privacy in their correspondences, they introduced their first line of Christmas and Valentine's Day cards. These early cards' innovative designs, superior quality, and attention to detail, in combination with their heartfelt sentiments, emotionally resonated with customers, enabling the budding business to quickly set itself apart from competitors. The introduction of seasonal cards marked a significant step in the eventual evolution of Hallmark's product offerings and cemented the family’s business as a holiday staple for generations to come.


The Commercialization of Valentine's Day

At the start of the 20th century, the average spending on Valentine's Day was moderate. People often exchanged cards and small gifts, with a focus on sentimental gestures rather than extravagant spending. However, as the 20th century progressed, the commercialization of Valentine's Day continued to expand. Greeting card companies, florists, chocolatiers, and other retailers leveraged growing forms of communication to influence and pursue buyers. These methods included newspaper advertisements, magazine spreads, radio campaigns, and, later on, television commercials. The increase in advertising led to an increase in the average amount spent per person.

Per a survey conducted by The National Retail Federation, in 2023, consumers will spend on average $192.80 for Valentine’s Day celebrations, an increase from $175.41 in 2022. The survey also found that the breakdown of this year’s most-given gifts will be 57% candy, 40% greeting cards, 37% flowers, 32% an evening out, 21% jewelry, 20% gift cards, and 19% clothing—mathematically, those numbers exceed 100%, indicating on average, consumers don’t just purchase one gift from one category, but instead buy a combination of gifts across several categories. Lastly, the survey indicates that the fastest-growing new gift category is labeled “experiences,” with about one-third or 32% of Americans planning to gift an experience in 2023, a statistical increase from 26% in 2022.

Cultural Variations of Valentine’s Day

While Valentine's Day is widely celebrated around the world, different cultures have unique ways of commemorating the day of love. In Japan, for example, it is customary for women to give chocolates to men on February 14, while men reciprocate on White Day, observed on March 14. In South Korea, there is an additional day called Black Day on April 14, where singles gather to eat black noodles and mourn their lack of romantic involvement.

To learn about more international Valentine’s Day traditions, check out our blog: International Valentine’s Day Traditions

Valentine’s Day Take-Away

Valentine's Day, with its ancient roots, Christian influence, and subsequent evolution into a celebration of romantic love, has withstood the test of time. From the mysterious St. Valentine to Chaucer's poetic influence and the commercialization of the modern era, the holiday has transformed into a global phenomenon. Its legacy, marked by the exchange of love notes, romantic gestures, and commercial opportunities, continues to shape the way societies express and celebrate love. As we navigate the complexities of modern life, Valentine's Day serves as a reminder of the enduring power of love to transcend time, cultures, and generations.


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