Roses, chocolates, cards, and prix-fixe dinners- we all know the drill, but do you know how February 14th became a symbol of romance? As it turns out, there are different accounts of the holiday’s origins, but it’s clear that several key players contributed to what we know as Valentine’s Day.
The day’s namesake, Saint Valentine, was most likely a priest in Rome during the third century. After Emperor Claudius II outlawed marriages so that there would be more single men to be soldiers, legend has it that Saint Valentine married couples in secret. While in jail for his defiance, some couples he had wed would bring him notes and flowers in gratitude. He fell in love with the jailer's daughter and passed her a note on the day of his execution that was signed “from, your Valentine.”
Some claim that he was martyred on February 14th, making that day a symbol of heroic love, but others claim that the Church decided to put Saint Valentine’s feast day mid-February to appropriate the pagan celebration Lupercalia into a more Christian tradition. The fertility festival involved slapping crop fields and women with goat hides dipped in sacrificial blood to increase fertility in the coming year. Afterwards, bachelors would choose names from an urn to be matched with young women, whom they would often marry.
The first written reference to the holiday is from the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, who wrote in “Parliament of Foules” in 1375 about the day each year that birds come together to find a mate: February 14th. The line “For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day / When every foul cometh ther to choose his mate” was the first recorded link between Saint Valentine’s feast day and romantic celebrations.
After that, written greetings began to be sent on Valentine’s Day, with the oldest known “valentine” being a poem by the Duke of Orleans to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Years later, King Henry V hired a writer to compose a valentine for Catherine of Valois, and eventually the practice trickled down to the masses until lovers of all social classes would exchange handwritten notes and tokens of affection.
In America, the first mass-produced valentines were made with lace, ribbons, and pictures by Esther A. Howland, the “Mother of the Valentine”, in the 1840s. By 1900, improvements in printing technology and cheaper postal rates led to an increase in the popularity of sending valentines, gaining momentum that has resulted in Valentine’s Day being the second largest card-sending holiday of the year.
Though no longer strongly connected to its religious past, Valentine’s Day has evolved into a $18.9 billion industry, with over 180 million roses and 36 million heart-shaped boxes of candy being purchased every year. But before shelling out $142.31, the average amount spent on Valentine’s Day gifts in 2015, look past the cheesy ads and pesky calendar reminders. Instead of empty romantic gestures, remember that it is a day to appreciate your relationship, to send a note of gratitude, and to express your love.