Every February 14, all over the world, lollies, chocolate, teddy bears, flowers and a whole range of gifts are exchanged between loved ones, all in the name of St. Valentine. Who is this mysterious saint, and where did these traditions come from? We take a sneak peek at the history of this romantic day, which goes back a lot further than you would have guessed.
The history of Valentine’s Day and the story of its patron saint is a bit of a mystery and research shows differing opinions. However, one thing is certain – Valentine’s Day is named after Saint Valentine, but just how did Saint Valentine become associated with this ancient celebration.
One legend contends that Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome. When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine, realising the injustice of the 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.
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.
Another legend suggests that 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 imprisonment. 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 uncertain, the stories all emphasise his appeal as a sympathetic, heroic and romantic figure.
Valentine greetings were popular as far back as the Middle Ages, though written Valentine’s didn’t begin to appear regularly 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.
Valentine’s Day began to be popularly celebrated, more as we know it today, around the 17th century. By the middle of the 18th century, it was common for friends and lovers of all social classes to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes. By 1900 printed cards began to replace written letters due to improvements in printing technology. Ready-made cards were an easy way for people to express their emotions in a time when direct expression of one’s feelings was discouraged.
An early modern cliché Valentine's Day poem can be found in the collection of English nursery rhymes by Joseph Ritson in Gammer Gurton's Garland (1784):
The rose is red, the violet's blue,
The honey's sweet, and so are you.
Thou art my love and I am thine;
I drew thee to my Valentine:
The lot was cast and then I drew,
And Fortune said it shou'd be you.
Today Valentine’s Day has become the second largest card giving time after Christmas. It is estimated that around a billion cards are exchanged every Valentine’s Day
Below are some facts about Valentine’s Day and is evolution over the centuries:
- During the 1700s in England, a girl would pin four bay leaves to her pillow and eat a hard-boiled egg, including the shell, on the eve of St. Valentine’s Day. Supposedly, if she dreamed of a boy that night, she would soon marry him. Girls would also write boys’ names on small pieces of paper, cover them with clay, and drop them into the water. When the clay broke, the papers floated to the top. The first name the girls could read would predict whom they would marry.
- In the Middle Ages, young men and women drew names from a bowl to see who would be their Valentine. They would wear this name pinned onto their sleeves for one week for everyone to see. This was the origin of the expression “to wear your heart on your sleeve.”
- In Victorian times it was considered bad luck to sign a Valentine’s Day card.
- According to Welsh tradition a child born on Valentine’s Day would have many lovers. A calf born on Valentine’s Day however, would be of no use for breeding purposes. If hens were to hatch eggs on Valentine’s Day, they would be rotten
- Shakespeare mentions Valentine’s Day in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and in Hamlet.
- Madame Royale, daughter of Henry the IV of France, loved Valentine’s Day so much that she named her palace “The Valentine”
- Richard Cadbury produced the first box of chocolates for Valentine’s Day in the late 1800s.
- Approximately 73% of people who buy flowers on this day are men, while only 27% are women.
- Based on retail statistics, about around 3 percent of pet owners will give gifts to their pets on this day.
- Approximately 15% of U.S. women send themselves flowers on Valentine’s Day
- Red roses are considered the flower of love because the colour red stands for strong romantic feelings. The red rose was the favourite flower of Venus, the Roman goddess of love.