Valentine’s Day History
Have you ever wondered how Valentine’s Day originated? Read the accounts of how this ritual began and has progressed throughout the ages.
Valentine’s Day, February 14th of every year, sees old and young alike exchange cards and letters, flowers and gifts with their loved ones all in the name of St. Valentine. The custom of exchanging greetings on Valentine’s Day dates back hundreds of years. Scholars have found records of Valentine notes dating back to the early 1400’s. But why do we celebrate this holiday and who is this mysterious Saint named “Valentine?” There are varying opinions as to the origin of Valentine’s Day.
Some historians connect the Valentine’s Day event with one or more saints of the early Christian church. One legend contends that Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome. When the ancient ruler, Emperor Claudius II (A.D. 268 – 270), decided that single men made better soldiers than those committed to wives and families, he outlawed marriage for all young men. Valentine, realizing the injustice of this decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death. Many stories say that Valentine was executed on February 14th in A.D. 269.
According to one legend, Valentine actually sent the first ‘valentine’ greeting himself while in prison. It is believed that Valentine fell in love with a young girl, who may have been his jailor’s daughter, who visited him during his confinement. Before his death, it is alleged that he wrote her a letter which he signed, ‘From your Valentine,’ an expression that is still used today.
Another legend has it that St. Valentine was an early Christian who made friends with many children. The Romans imprisoned him because he refused to worship their gods. The children missed Valentine and tossed loving notes to him between the bars of his cell window. Yet other stories suggest that Valentine may have been killed for attempting to help Christians escape harsh Roman prisons where they were often beaten and tortured.
The history of Valentine’s Day, and its patron saint, is shrouded in mystery. But we do know that February has long been the month of romance. St. Valentine’s Day, as we know it today, contains remnants of both Christian and ancient Roman tradition.
Other experts say Valentine’s Day origins has little to do with a “saint” but instead, originated on the eve of the ancient Roman feast of Lupercalia, an annual festival held on February 15th. The ancients viewed the Lupercalia festival as a purification and fertility rite. Some of the very first ceremonies were said to have occurred in a cave called “Lupercal,” where Romulus and Remus, Rome’s legendary founders were said to have been suckled by a she-wolf as infants. The annual ritual involved the sacrifice of goats and a dog in the cave by priests.
Blood from the sacrificed animals would be smeared on the foreheads of two noble young men and then the priests would jog around Rome’s seven hills, naked but for a loincloth, wielding several strips of leather from the sacrificed goats. Swinging this improvised whip, a priest purified anything and anyone in his path. Women lined the streets in advance of the running priest, extending hands or baring their body to be briefly and symbolically whipped, as he passed by. Young wives were particularly eager to receive these blows, because it was believed that the ritual promoted fertility and easy childbirth.
It is on the eve of this ancient festival that Valentine’s Day allegedly originated. On February 14th, the eve of the Lupercalia festival, eligible young women of the town would write their names on slips of paper, put them in an earthen jar and then young men would pick out a name at random. The pair would then be partners for the remainder of the festival. Sometimes these pairs stayed together for an entire year and often fell in love and married.
Valentine’s Day for the birds? In England, it is said that half way through the month of February, being the 14th, marks the time when birds began to pair. Hence, the reason why the day was sanctified for lovers. It was also looked upon as an occasion for writing love letters and sending lovers tokens. French and English literature of the 14th and 15th centuries contain references to this practice. The earliest can be found in the 34th and 35th Ballads of the poet, John Gower.
Early Valentine Customs
- Some historians trace the sending of verses on Valentine’s Day back to the early 1400’s in England. They attribute this to a Frenchman by the name of Charles, Duke of Orleans who was captured by England during the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. While imprisoned, he sent his wife a rhymed love letter on Valentine`s Day, from his cell.
- In Western Europe some unmarried women would get up early, before sunrise, on Valentine`s Day. They’d stand by the window watching for a man to pass. They believed that the first man they saw, or someone who looks like him, would marry them within a year. William Shakespeare, the English playwright, included this belief in Hamlet (1603) where Ophelia sings,
Good morrow! ‘Tis St. Valentine’s Day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your valentine!
- During the 1700’s, unmarried women pinned five bay leaves to their pillow on Valentine`s Eve. One was pinned in the centre with the other four in each corner. It is said that by doing this they would see their future husband in their dreams.
- One description of Valentine’s Day during the 1700’s tells how groups of friends met to draw names. For several days, each man wore his valentine’s name on his sleeve. “Wearing his heart on his sleeve,” is a saying that allegedly came from this practice.
- In England in 1767 it became the custom for men to leave a valentine love letter at the door of their sweetheart. Little books called Valentine’s writers helped men to write poetry and sentimental verses.
- English women of the 1700’s used to write men’s names on scraps of paper, rolled each in a little piece of clay, and dropped them all into water. The first paper that rose to the surface supposedly had the name of a woman’s true love.
- In France, the elders gathered the names of eligible people for marriage, matched them, and called out their names when passing their houses on the street. If the pair was satisfied, the girl would cook a meal and her valentine would bring wine, and they would attend a dance. If the man did not like her he would desert her and she would stay alone for eight days. On Saturday night she would burn an effigy of him in a bonfire with other unhappy women and scream abuses about him. This was abolished in 1776 by French parliament, and by 1816 completely fell out of favor.
- Some people used to believe that if a woman saw a robin fly overhead on Valentine’s Day, it meant she would marry a sailor; if she saw a sparrow, she’d marry a poor man, and be very happy; if she saw a goldfinch, she’d marry a millionaire.
- In Victorian times (17th-18th centuries) children of wealthy parents in both England and France threw parties. They played games, ate heart-shaped sweets, and gave each other valentines. This continues today.
Modern Day Customs
- In Canada, the United States and most Western European countries, Valentine’s Day is celebrated on February 14th. On this day, sending valentines to loved ones, family members and friends is still the most popular custom. Valentines come in a variety of styles ranging from humorous to the romantic verses. Another popular custom is that of giving flowers, jewelry or chocolates adorned by fancy decorated heart shaped boxes.
- Denmark: It is customary to send pressed white flowers called snowdrops to their friends. The men also send a valentine, called a ‘gaekkebrev,’ which means a joking or fun letter. The sender writes a rhyme but instead of signing his name, he uses dots for each letter in his name. At Easter, the woman who correctly guessed the name of the sender receives an Easter egg from him.
- Wales: Wooden love spoons are carved and given as gifts on February 14th. Hearts, keys and keyholes are favorite decorations, which mean you unlock my heart!
- England: Valentine buns made with caraway seeds, plums, or raisins are popular in parts of England. Another custom has children singing songs for candy or money on Valentine’s Day.
- Scotland: A Lover’s Knot made of ribbon or paper is given.
- Italy: A Valentine’s Day feast is held and young people gather in groves and gardens to listen to love poetry and music.
- Germany: Women plant onions in pots on Saint Valentine’s Day. Each onion is given a man’s name and put near the fireplace. The first onion to sprout will be their intended.
Commercial Valentine cards - first originated in the early 1800’s. Many of them were blank inside, with space for the sender to write a message. The British artist, Kate Greenaway, became famous for her valentine cards in the late 1800’s. Many of her cards featured charming pictures of happy children and lovely gardens.
Esther A. Howland, of Worcester, Massachusetts, became one of the first U.S.A. manufacturers of valentine cards. In 1847 after seeing a British valentine card, she decided to make some of her own. She made samples and took orders from stores. She then hired a staff of young women and set up an assembly line to produce the cards. One woman glued on paper flowers, another added lace, and yet another painted leaves.
Many valentines of the 1800’s were hand painted. Some featured a fat cupid or showed arrows piercing a heart. Many cards had satin, ribbon, or lace trim. Others were decorated with dried flowers, feathers, imitation jewels, mother-of-pearl, sea shells, or tassels. Some of those cards cost as much as $10.00. A small price to pay for love…
And so as long as romantic love flourishes…
we will continue to celebrate St. Valentine’s Day!