The ancient origins of Valentine's Day

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From Roman marriage rites to heart-shaped chocolate boxes

The ancient origins of Valentine's Day
(Getty Premium images)

“To-morrow is Saint Valentine's day, All in the morning betime, And I a maid at your window, To be your Valentine.”

— Hamlet, Act IV, Scene v

Valentine's Day is the most important date in the romantic calendar, a day on which couples celebrate their relationships and single people go looking for love. In the weeks leading up to 14 February, it's impossible to avoid flowers, cards and heart-shaped boxes of chocolates. Although Valentine's Day has little to do with the early Christian martyrs of the same name, it is one of our oldest holidays, with romantic traditions stretching back into the middle ages.

Saint Valentine and the medieval poet

The ancient origins of Valentine's Day
(Medioimages/Photodisc/Photodisc/Getty Images)

There are at least two early Christian martyrs named Valentine, and a third, lesser-known saint from northern Africa. None of these saints have any particular association with romance, and by the time the feast day of Saint Valentine became associated with love in the middle ages, few people recalled the difference between Valentine of Rome and Valentine of Termi. Some sources suggest that one of the Valentines performed illegal marriages for Roman Christians, but there is little evidence to connect this either with a historical Saint Valentine or with romantic love.

One explanation for the connection between Valentine's Day and romance is the Roman festival of Lupercalia, celebrated on the 13th to 15th of February and intended to protect Rome from evil spirits. Although the two holidays share the same date, there's no real evidence for any other connection between them -- Lupercalia centered on the antics of a group of young men who ran through the city streets naked, whipping passersby. The connection with romance isn't immediately obvious.

It may be that the date of Saint Valentine's feast day, which coincides with the date of Lupercalia, was intended to replace either this pagan holiday or another celebration devoted to the goddess Juno. The selection of February 14th as the feast day may also reflect a tradition in the early church that Valentine of Rome was buried on this date.

Valentine's Day and love

The ancient origins of Valentine's Day
(Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images)

The idea of Valentine's Day as a romantic holiday, although it doesn't date back to the early church, is nonetheless an ancient tradition. The first recorded mentions of Valentine's Day and love come during the middle ages, but they occur in a context that makes it clear that the connection with love was already well-known.

Medieval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer provides the first recorded reference to Valentine's Day as a day for romantic love. In "Parlement of Foules", a poem written in 1382 to commemorate the engagement of Richard II and Anne of Bohemia. In this poem, Chaucer mentions that Valentine's Day is believed to be the day birds mate, although he may be referring to a different Valentine's Day in early summer. Chaucer's contemporary John Gower refers to the same belief.

A more specific reference to Valentine's Day as a day for romance comes from the writing of 15th-century poet John Lydgate, who wrote that on Valentine's Day, the English would "look and search Cupid's calendar / and choose their choice, by great affection". During this period, the High Court of Love in Paris opened on Valentine's Day to judge cases relating to love and marriage. The first Valentine's note dates to 1415, written by Charles, Duke of Orleans, a French nobleman in English captivity following the Battle of Agincourt.

The practice of choosing a valentine for Valentine's Day seems to date from the 15th century as well. Some writers from this period suggest that valentines were chosen at random, while others suggest that a valentine was someone chosen because of genuine feelings.

By the 17th century, Valentine's Day customs were similar in some ways to modern ones. The London diarist Samuel Pepys records giving Valentine's Day gifts to women, although his valentines were typically the wives or daughters of colleagues. The gifts might be given much later to a person chosen on the day itself. Similarly, Pepys would arrange for young men to give gifts to his wife -- Pepys even paid for the presents himself. Part of the custom was for a man to give gifts to the first woman he met on the day. Pepys arranged to call at his colleagues' houses early in the morning so that he would meet this requirement.

The modern holiday

The custom of choosing a valentine -- now slightly in decline -- and of giving gifts appears to have been part of the holiday from quite early in its history. Other parts of the celebration, such as the ubiquitous Valentine's day card, are of somewhat more recent vintage.

Love-notes have been associated with Valentine's Day since the 15th century. By the end of the 18th century, they had become so common that publishers released books filled with romantic verses and sentiments for lovers who struggled with writing their own valentines. Like Christmas cards, Valentine's Day cards become more and more popular as postal services became cheaper and easier to use. Mass-produced cards begin to appear in the early-to-mid 19th century, and spread from Britain to America by 1847. Although early cards incorporated real lace, the spread of less-expensive paper lace helped to make these cards more popular.

The largest creator of Valentine's Day card, US-based Hallmark, began production in 1913, making cards one of the most important features of the day. The traditions of giving chocolate or jewellery also spread during this period; common earlier gifts had included clothing, particularly dainty items such as gloves.

Today, Valentine's Day is a major commercial holiday; in 2009, the United States alone saw over £9 billion in estimated retail sales connected with Valentine's cards and gifts. The social pressure connected with the holiday can create anxiety for those in couples and depression in the single. Alternatively, giving a Valentine's Day card or gift can be seen as participating in a tradition of celebrating love that goes back, if not to ancient Rome, then at least for over 600 years. Like love, the value of Valentine's Day remains in the eye of the beholder.

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