Reasons to love: A history of Valentine’s Day

January 24, 2017 (Last Updated: November 7, 2018)
history valentine's day

It’s one of the most popular holidays worldwide, commemorated with chocolate, flowers, and mad dashes to the shops for last-minute presents, but it’s surprising how little we actually know about the origins of Valentine’s Day. Everything from the reason for the date to the true identity of St Valentine is somewhat shrouded in mystery, but there are certain traditions that have endured through the ages, and nowadays there’s no arguing with what’s expected on the day of love.

Roman style

Long before lovers were swapping cards and husbands and wives were planning romantic dinners, the ancient Romans were celebrating in style. The Roman feast of Lupercalia, held on February 15, celebrated fertility and purification in honour of the god Lucpercus. Instead of sacrificing dignity chasing that elusive crush, however, the Romans preferred to offer dogs and goats (animals revered for their sexual instincts) as tributes of purification and fertility, respectively.  The day that followed was a merry romp of wine, women stepping forward to be slapped with pieces of the sacrificed animals’ skins (a practice believed to increase fertility), and feasting.

Why the 14th?

With Christianity on the rise and the widespread banning of pagan traditions, Pope Gelasius officially abolished the Roman festival in 496 AD. February 15th’s animal sacrifices and drunken laughter were quelled to make way for a quieter February 14th, the Feast Day of the martyr St Valentine.

With the name and date decided, there’s one origin story missing from the Valentine’s saga: the celebration of love. The original Feast of St Valentine wasn’t strongly associated with romantic love. So where does this notion come from? It’s difficult to say, but a common explanation is that throughout much of medieval Europe, birds began to pair off and nest on the 14th of February. Lovebirds of a feather obviously stick together.

The elusive St Valentine

On this special day, whom do we blame for unrequited love, or thank for the relationship of a lifetime? The easy answer would be St Valentine, if only his identity was clear. The trouble is that historians can generally agree on the existence of two St Valentines, one a temple priest, the other a Bishop of Terni.

The young priest Valentine, who lived under the bloody rule of Emperor Claudius, seems to have had quite the soft heart. According to the mad and bad Emperor, young men were to abstain from marriage, as wives and family responsibilities distracted them from military commitments. Valentine, that hopeless romantic, couldn’t stomach this injustice and continued to perform secret marriages. For all his efforts, he was arrested and condemned to beaten to death and decapitated. He served his sentence on the 14th of February, but before meeting his fate, left a farewell message to the jailer’s daughter, with whom he had grown close. The paper read “From Your Valentine”.

Valentine of Terni seems to be the peacemaker all relationships will inevitably need at some point. Legend has it that he resolved a lovers’ spat by gifting them with a rose and speaking them through their conflict. Arguing endures as long as love does (often longer), and Valentine was at the forefront of harmony, armed with a rose for each couple. In fact, the only quality more impressive than his communication skills was his commitment. At a time when paganism prevailed, St Valentine of Terni refused to denounce Christianity and its teachings. Unfortunately, being faithful (ironically) ended in tragedy, as the young Bishop was tortured and executed on 14 February for refusing to abandon his chosen devotion.

Presents, always

Following on from the original message to the jailer’s daughter, the tradition of Valentine’s cards has only surged in popularity. English author Geoffrey Chaucer immortalised the notion of printed love with his poem ‘Parlement of Foules’, in which the first recorded link between romantic love and Valentine’s Day appears. By the 18th century, sentimental messages between lovers became customary, and Esther Howland aka Mother of the American Valentine founded her empire of lacey Valentine’s cards bearing words of devoted love.

The red roses that were supposedly St Valentine of Terni’s first line of defense when it came to marriage counselling stand as a romantic symbol to this day. Flowers have been associated with affection for centuries, but the red rose in particular is suggestive of starry-eyed love. Floriography made its way to Europe from Persia in the 1700s thanks to King Charles II of Sweden, and the symbolic meanings of certain buds became a whole new language. By the Victorian era, red roses were the official approach to conveying the message of everlasting love.

Single or spoken for, there is one tradition that very few people can argue with: Valentine’s Day chocolate. Whether accepting a box from your sweetheart or taking advantage of the post-February 14th discounts, the day of love is synonymous with smooth, silky richness. Prized as an aphrodisiac since the Aztecs, it wasn’t until Richard Cadbury developed ‘eating’ bites in the mid-1800s that chocolate really became palatable and commercialised. Cadbury developed the first heart-shaped box of chocolates in 1861, and changed Valentine’s Day forever. Followed by Milton Hershey, and Russell and Clara Stover, Valentine’s chocolates became a commercial cornerstone, and endure to this day. There’s no better way to celebrate your relationship or cure your loneliness than with rich, indulgent goodness.

Modern love 

Despite its confusing and sometimes bloody history, the Valentine’s Day of the modern world is less about secret marriages and goat skin, and more about spending time with someone special. You don’t have to go all out or forget entirely, but the slightest gesture to someone you love can often mean the world to them. And if it doesn’t, that just means you get to eat that entire box of chocolates by yourself. 

By Virginia Boshoff

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