Valentine’s Day, also known as the lover’s holiday, is celebrated all over the world.
On February 14 in Japan, women traditionally give chocolate gifts to their boyfriends or husbands, but have to wait a whole month to receive a gift in return.
In South Africa, weeklong celebrations take place and young girls pin the names of their lovers on their sleeves in honor of the romantic holiday.
In America, Valentine’s Day is typically celebrated by couples exchanging gifts, such as candy, flowers, or jewelry, or going out to a restaurant for a romantic dinner. But underneath all the mushy love traditions, Valentine’s Day is nothing but a manufactured holiday created by greeting card companies to get your money, right? Wrong.
While greeting card companies certainly have capitalized on Valentine’s Day over the years, the lover’s holiday has roots dating so far back that no one is certain of its exact origins. Many experts believe that Valentine’s Day originates from the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia.
The pagan celebration, which may have started at the founding of Rome or even earlier, was held each February 15 at a sacred cave where members of an order of Roman priests known as the Luperci would sacrifice a goat for fertility and a dog for purification. They would then skin the goat, cut its hide into strips, and dip them into sacrificial blood. They would proceed to whip women with the hide because they believed that doing so would make them fertile. Young women would even willingly line up to participate in the ceremony. Later on in the day, all the young women in the city would place their names in an urn and the men would choose a name to couple up with for the duration of the festival. Lupercalia lasted until the end of the 5th century, when it was declared “un-Christian” and outlawed by Pope Gelasius, who erected a new holiday on February 14 in honor of a martyred saint, St. Valentine.
Little is certain about St. Valentine other than his name and the fact that he was martyred on February 14. There are several stories surrounding St. Valentine regarding why he was chosen to be honored, and it’s even possible that there was more than one St. Valentine. According to one legend, St. Valentine was an Italian priest or bishop who lived during the 3rd century AD. Around this time, Emperor Claudius II outlawed marriage for young men because he believed that single men made better soldiers than those who were married with children. Despite the decree, Valentine continued to perform marriages for young men. When Claudius discovered that Valentine was defying his orders, he ordered him to be put to death. Another tale tells the story of a priest who was martyred for attempting to help Christians who were jailed for their beliefs escape harsh Roman prisons. While in jail, Valentine is said to have sent the first “valentine” greeting himself after falling in love with his jailer’s daughter, who occasionally visited him. Before he was put to death, he allegedly wrote the girl a letter signed “From your Valentine.”
Although the holiday was officially declared over 1500 years ago, it wasn’t until the 14th century that Valentine’s Day became definitively associated with love. During this time, it was commonly believed in France and England that February 14 marked the beginning of mating season for birds. In 1381, English poet Geoffrey Chaucer composed a poem in honor of the engagement between England’s Richard II and Anne of Bohemia called Parliament of Fowls. In the poem, he writes, “For this was on St. Valentine’s Day/When every fowl cometh there to choose his mate.” The day has been known as a holiday for lovers ever since. In fact, the oldest-known valentine still around today was written by Charles, Duke of Orleans to his wife in 1415 while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London after being captured at the Battle of Agincourt. It is believed that years later, King Henry V hired a writer to pen a valentine to Catherine of Valois.
By the 18th century, it was a common tradition to exchange notes of affection and gifts among friends and lovers on Valentine’s Day. In the 1840s, the first mass-produced valentines in America were sold by Esther A. Howland, who created them by using lace, ribbons, and colorful pictures. By the 1900s, modern printing technology made it easier and faster to manufacture valentines, and today an estimated 1 billion Valentine’s Day cards are sent each year. The average annual amount consumers spend on the holiday overall is over $13 billion.
Valentine’s Day may be a huge moneymaker for greeting card companies and other retail manufacturers, but there is a lot more than meets the eye for the holiday of love.
- Chivers T. History of Valentine’s Day. The Telegraph website. February 14, 2010. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/sex/valentines-day/7187784/History-of-Valentines-Day.html.
- How other countries celebrate Valentine’s Day. Do Something website. http://www.dosomething.org/blog/how-other-countries-celebrate-valentines-day.
- Seipel A. The dark origins of Valentine’s Day. NPR website. February 13, 2011. http://www.npr.org/2011/02/14/133693152/the-dark-origins-of-valentines-day.
- Valentine’s Day. The History Channel website. http://www.history.com/topics/valentines-day.
- Valentine’s Day statistics. Statistic Brain website. February 4, 2013. http://www.statisticbrain.com/valentines-day-statistics.