Valentine’s Day History: Myths, Legends and Facts About February 14th

Valentine's Day History: Myths, Legends and Facts About February 14th
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Valentine’s Day is celebrated every year on February 14th as a day to express love and affection. The holiday is marked by the exchange of cards, flowers, chocolates and gifts between loved ones. While Valentine’s Day is hugely popular across the world today, its origins date back thousands of years to ancient Roman and Christian traditions.

Ancient Roman Festival

The roots of Valentine’s Day lie in the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia, celebrated on February 15th. Lupercalia was a spring fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture. It was also linked to Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome.

During Lupercalia, Roman priests would gather at a sacred cave called the Lupercal grotto, where Romulus and Remus were believed to have been cared for by a she-wolf. The priests would sacrifice goats and dogs and use their blood-soaked hides to slap women and crop fields. This was believed to make women and crops more fertile in the coming year.

Young unmarried women would put their names in an urn and be randomly matched with eligible bachelors during the festival. These couples were paired until the next Lupercalia festival. This may have been the start of the lover’s lottery associated with modern Valentine’s Day.

Rise of Christianity

As Christianity spread in Rome, many pagan traditions were adapted to Christian holy days and practices. Lupercalia occurred near the feast day of St Valentine, established by Pope Gelasius in 496 AD. Eventually Lupercalia customs became intertwined with Valentine’s Day rituals.

There are differing accounts of who St Valentine was. According to one legend, he was a priest in 3rd century Rome who continued to perform marriages in secret after Emperor Claudius II outlawed marriage for young men. Claudius believed single men made better soldiers. St Valentine was executed for defying this decree.

Another account holds that St Valentine was a bishop who was killed for helping Christians escape harsh Roman prisons in the late 3rd century AD. While these narratives may refer to different individuals, they were likely combined over the centuries to inspire the view of St Valentine as a sympathetic, heroic and romantic figure.

Chaucer and Courtly Love

Written references to Valentine’s Day first appeared in the medieval period, when the concept of courtly love flourished. Courtly love referred to a knight’s chivalrous devotion to an unattainable lady.

In 1382, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote a poem to honor the first anniversary of the engagement of England’s Richard II to Anne of Bohemia. This poem is the first known written reference to Valentine’s Day as a celebration of romance. Chaucer wrote:

“For this was Saint Valentine’s day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.”

References to Valentine’s Day as a holiday for lovers began appearing frequently in written works throughout the medieval period. The holiday gained wider popularity in England in the 17th century.

Valentine’s Day in the Modern Era

In the 1840s, Esther Howland started mass producing and selling the first Valentine’s Day cards in America. She became known as the “Mother of the Valentine” for popularizing this tradition. Her elaborate lace cards decorated with flowers and love notes set the standard for modern valentines.

Today over 150 million valentine cards are sent in the US alone each year. Other popular Valentine’s Day gifts like roses, chocolates and jewelry were also promoted by retailers realizing the holiday’s profit potential. The commercialization of Valentine’s Day spread globally in the 20th century.

Valentine’s Traditions Around the World

While Valentine’s Day customs vary across cultures, they hold similar meanings of love and appreciation. Here are some Valentine’s Day traditions from around the world:

  • In South Korea, Valentine’s Day is celebrated in a unique way. On February 14th, women gift chocolates to men. Then on March 14th, White Day, men buy candies, flowers or gifts for women.
  • In the Philippines, Valentine’s Day is all about weddings. Hundreds of couples tie the knot on Valentine’s Day and mass wedding ceremonies are broadcast on TV.
  • In Brazil, Valentine’s Day is also known as Dia dos Namorados or “Lovers’ Day”. Romantic dinners and dances are common Valentine’s Day celebrations.
  • In Slovenia, a proverb states that “St Valentine brings the keys of roots”, so Valentine’s Day is celebrated as the day of love, friendship and the awakening of nature.
  • In Japan, women give gifts of chocolate to the men in their lives. Different types of chocolate are gifted based on the nature of the relationship.

Symbolism of Valentine’s Day

Certain symbols and gestures are now quintessentially linked to Valentine’s Day across the world:

  • Red Roses – Red roses represent romantic love and desire. Gifting roses stems from Greek and Roman mythology.
  • Heart Shaped Items – Hearts are universally recognized as the symbol for love. Heart motifs dominate Valentine’s decorations and gifts.
  • Chocolates – Sweets for your sweetheart, especially chocolate, are popular Valentine’s treats. Chocolates trigger the release of hormones like oxytocin that evoke feelings of pleasure.
  • Cupid – The winged cherub armed with a bow and arrow is the Roman god of erotic love and desire. Images of Cupid convey passion and playfulness around Valentine’s Day.
  • Romantic Cards – Handwritten notes or mass produced cards help convey the sender’s emotions and strengthen bonds.
  • Dinner Dates – Couples often celebrate with intimate dinners at restaurants to enjoy quality time together.

Valentine’s Day Facts

Here are some fascinating facts about the celebrations and traditions around this romantic holiday:

  • About 1 billion Valentine’s Day cards are exchanged each year. This makes it the second largest seasonal card sending time of the year.
  • Alexander Graham Bell applied for his patent on the telephone on February 14, 1876. This day was both his birthday and the day he married his assistant Mabel Hubbard.
  • Physicians of the 1800s commonly advised their patients to eat chocolate to calm their pining for lost love.
  • In the Middle Ages, young men and women drew names from a bowl to see who would be their Valentine and exchange gifts.
  • Around 3% of pet owners will give Valentine’s Day gifts to their pets. Popular presents include treats, toys and costumes.
  • The Italian city of Verona, where Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet lived, receives thousands of letters addressed to Juliet on Valentine’s Day each year.
  • Richard Cadbury produced the first ever heart shaped Valentine’s Day chocolate boxes in the late 1860s.
  • The red rose was the favorite flower of Venus, the Roman goddess of love.

Valentine’s Day Controversies

While hugely popular, Valentine’s Day has certainly not been without its controversies and critics over the years:

  • Religious Controversy – Many religious groups have criticized Valentine’s Day as a secular celebration that encourages immoral behavior and distracts from God. It has been banned in some conservative countries.
  • Commercialism Complaints – Valentine’s Day is highly commercialized, with critics arguing it forces people to spend money on gifts and tokens of affection.
  • Singleness Stigma – Some groups highlight that Valentine’s Day marginalizes singles and creates undue social pressure. Events like Galentine’s Day now counter this.
  • Gender Stereotypes – Feminists have highlighted that traditional Valentine’s Day reinforces gender roles like men giving gifts and women receiving them.
  • Environmental Harm – The mass production of cards, flowers and other Valentine’s products has a large carbon footprint, generating thousands of tons of waste.

Valentine’s Day for Everyone

While Valentine’s Day has its share of controversies, the holiday has evolved to become more inclusive of all kinds of romantic relationships and even non-romantic love.

Same-sex couples now commonly celebrate Valentine’s Day and use it to symbolize their relationships. Valentine’s Day gifts and dates are also popular for unmarried couples today without the stigma of the past. Friends exchange Galentine’s Day gifts to value non-romantic bonds. Co-workers hold office Valentine’s Day parties as a team bonding activity.

Modern Valentine’s Day emphasizes celebrating all relationships filled with genuine care, respect and compassion. The day offers a chance to make meaningful connections and bring more love into the world in its broadest sense. The commercialization notwithstanding, Valentine’s Day represents a day specially dedicated to expressing affection.

Valentine’s Day in Pop Culture

Popular books, films and TV shows have both reflected and shaped the evolving celebrations of Valentine’s Day over the past decades.

Many classic romantic films like “My Best Friend’s Wedding”, “The Notebook” and “When Harry Met Sally” have pivotal Valentine’s Day scenes. Popular romantic comedies like “Valentine’s Day” and “Hitch” are set around February 14th.

Episodes of shows like “The Office”, “Parks and Recreation” and “New Girl” portray workplace Valentine’s Day celebrations. Special Valentine’s Day themed episodes feature on series like “Gossip Girl”, “Grey’s Anatomy”, and “Glee”.

Songs like “My Funny Valentine” and Taylor Swift’s “Lover” have crooned about romance on this day. Artists like Beyonce and John Legend have released Valentine’s Day albums with songs dedicated to love.

The Future of Valentine’s Day

While the celebrations have greatly evolved from pagan rituals and Christian feasts, Valentine’s Day is likely here to stay as a beloved cultural event. But the ongoing commercialization and impact on the environment may accelerate changes.

Eco-conscious millennials are likely to exchange sustainable gifts and virtual Valentine’s e-cards. Singles who feel marginalized are reclaiming the day as one to value self-love and platonic relationships. Modern Valentine’s Day emphasizes inclusion, creativity, and protecting the planet along with passion for your sweetheart!

Valentine’s Day FAQs

Q: When did Valentine’s Day first originate?

A: The origins of Valentine’s Day date back to the ancient Roman festival Lupercalia, held on February 15th as a pagan fertility celebration. The feast of St Valentine was established in 496 AD by Pope Gelasius, blending Lupercalia traditions with Christian meanings.

Q: How did St Valentine become associated with love and romance?

A: Legends portray St Valentine as a sympathetic, heroic and romantic figure that defied Roman laws to perform marriages and help Christians. His courage to follow love despite persecution influenced the view of Valentine’s Day as celebrating affection and relationships.

Q: When did Valentine’s Day become popular?

A: Valentine’s Day grew in popularity in medieval Europe, where the concept of courtly love flourished. Geoffrey Chaucer’s 1382 poem connects Valentine’s Day with romance. Exchanging cards, flowers and other gifts became tradition in 17th century England.

Q: How did Valentine’s Day become commercialized?

A: The commercialization of Valentine’s Day grew in the 1840s with the first mass produced Valentine’s cards in America. Chocolates, roses and jewelry were promoted as gifts for loved ones by retailers capitalizing on the holiday’s profit potential. Marketing campaigns spread Valentine’s Day globally.

Q: What are some key Valentine’s Day symbols?

A: Common Valentine’s symbols include red roses representing passion, heart shapes signifying love, Cupid the god of desire, romantic greeting cards, intimate dinners, chocolates and candy evoking sweetness.

Q: How do other cultures celebrate Valentine’s Day?

A: Global Valentine’s traditions include White Day gifts in Asia, mass weddings in the Philippines, Friends Day in Finland, love lotteries in Saudi Arabia and more. The core meaning of affection remains even as customs vary cross-culturally.

The age-old desire to cherish romance lives on but is manifested in new ways. Regardless of its past controversies or future evolution, Valentine’s Day endures as a special day to celebrate love in all its forms.

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