How Did Saint Valentine's Day Develop?
Saint Valentine's Day is widely celebrated in the Western world as a day of love and romantic relationships. While this tradition does go far back and has connections to early Christian traditions, there are also more complex links with pre-Christian holidays that were likely changed or modified into Saint Valentine's Day traditions.
The story of Saint Valentine does have a direct link to one or several early saints called Valentine (Figure 1). Many traditions have developed around this holiday, and most likely there were multiple traditions that were integrated as original records were lost. One of those traditions state that Valentines was a priest in Rome martyred for defying Claudius II, who had decreed his soldiers would not marry. He may have tried to marry soldiers in secret and when the emperor found out he had him executed. The heart may have been a symbol of love between the pair and this could have become a love symbol. Other scholars, however, dispute that such an edict would have ever been done by an emperor. Another story states Valentine tried to help Christians escape and he was imprisoned after he was caught. He eventually may have fallen in love with his jailor's daughter and he sent the first "valentine" to her. He may have greeted her by saying "Your Valentine" and this is where using valentine as part of the Valentine Day greeting may have originated. Another idea is that Valentine of Terni, who was a Christian bishop, who was martyred in 273 during persecutions. There is a legend that he married a young pagan soldier with a young Christian woman. On hearing his wife was dying, the soldier converted to Christianity so that he could be bounded with her forever and then he subsequently died shortly after his wife's death.
We do know that Saint Valentine's Day was a feast day that likely celebrated a Christian saint and had developed when Pope Gelasius in the late 5th century CE declared that February 14th would be the feast day associated with the saint. However, the motives for this and stories associated with Saint Valentine suggest there may have been some earlier influences on the tradition. What we do know is that many early Christian traditions and feast days were often created to be similar to pagan festivals, as it helped early converts in transitioning to the new religion. Saint Valentine's Day may have not been different. The Lupercalia celebrations were a festival held on February 15th in honor of fertility and dedicated to the Roman god Faunus. The celebration may have also focused on the mythical founding of Rome by Romulus and Remus and how they were raised by a she-wolf. Goats would be sacrificed and the blood from goats, along with the hide, would be dragged and slapped or sprinkled on crops and women. This would bring women and crops luck in fertility. One legend stated that in this celebration, single women and men were sometimes paired and these matches often ended in marriage. However, some authors dispute its association with love between people. While it is possible that Pope Gelasius by the end of the 5th century CE saw Lupercalia as un-Christian and his declaration of Saint Valentine's Day on February 14th may have been intended to replace the pre-Christian holiday by combing some of the ideas of Lupercalia with a saint story, this is also uncertain.
In Saxon England, young men or boys would often give women of their affections small gifts that included gloves. The fact that Saint Valentine's Day is near spring and foreshadowed it could have made it more festive in association with love. In some regions, Saint Valentine's Day began to be associated with spring since it was often the time people began to rework in their fields in preparing for the planting season. However, these events did not associate the day directly with love. Although the Roman and other stories associated with Saint Valentine could have connected the day with love, other later traditions may have further added to this idea. Geoffrey Chaucer, the famous early English author, wrote that the time was associated with birds beginning to pair themselves. In effect, it was a time of pairing and matches and associations of this to humans may have begun around that time.
In 1400, Charles VI of France commissioned Charter of the Court of Love , which was a charter where on February 14th contests would be held related to love songs and poetry readings about love (Figure 2). While the accuracy of the story of this are not certain, what we do know is by the 15th century people did begin to wish their beloved valentine greetings. The developments around this time made have made chivalrous acts between maidens and single men and Valentine's Day associated. The Duke of Orléans, who was captured in battle against the English, wished his wife a sweet valentine. In England, Valentine's Day also began to be associated with gifts of sweets for children. It was during the Medieval period that young people put the names of the person they wanted to marry on their sleeves, which has come to us in the expression of putting your heart on your sleeve. In the 15th century, cards may have begun to be created with notes of affection, although they did not become popular until much later. By 1600, Shakespear's Hamlet has Ophelia discuss her love for Hamlet in association with Valentine's Day.
By the 17th centuries, Valentine's day began to be popular among friends and lovers among different classes. At this point, people began to exchange tokens of affection and notes with each other expressing their feelings. Charles II of Sweden in the 18th century began to associate affection with flowers and it was possibly at this time that flowers were used with Valentine's Day. The single rose at this time may have come to symbolize romantic love.
Modern Valentine's Day has been strongly influenced by American traditions that first derived from the mid-19th century. Esther A. Howland in the 1840s began selling cards and gifts that contained real lace, ribbons and colorful pictures. It was also this time that women began to be more strongly associated with Valentine's Day relative to men, where marketing began to focus more on them and today they constitute about 85% of Valentine's Day sales. It was around 1900 that Valentine cards were popularly produced throughout Europe and began to replace letters and notes that lovers would exchange. Valentine cards often contained secret compartments that the women of affection would have to find, which may have contained additional messages or gifts of affection. The British chocolate company of Cadbury began to create decorated boxes of chocolates for Valentine's Day in the 1860s and that has since made chocolates another association with Valentine's Day.
In the modern world, it is China and South Korean that have taken the mantel of spending the most on Valentine's Day. In other countries outside of the West, many of them had feasts or festivals associated with love. These customs have often been replaced or sometimes integrated along with Western Valentine's Day traditions such as sending chocolates and flowers to a beloved. For instance, in Wales, St. Dwynwen's Day was the day to celebrate lovers. This falls on January 25th. Aspects of this tradition are sometimes combined with February 14th in Wales or people simply celebrate the Welsh holiday with Western style Valentine's Day celebrations.
Valentine's Day is still an uncertain holiday in terms of its origins. Many stories exist around it and there might be some truth in each of the stories. The influence of pre-Christian traditions are also possible, and likely given many ancient feasts existed that revolved around fertility and love. The modern date may have been a Christian way to syncretize these ideas with the Christian faith. Whatever the case might be, later developments such as flowers associated with love and chocolates as presents to a beloved developed more clearly in the modern era. By the 19th century, commercialization of Valentine's Day had already become evident in the United States with the development of cards and decorative products.
- For more on the early saints associated with Valentine's Day, see: Sabuda, R. (1999). Saint Valentine. Aladdin.
- For more on how the Saint Valentine's traditions may have evolved between pre-Christian and later Christian traditions, see: Pogue, C. (1996). Treasury of celebrations. Kelowna, B.C.: Northstone, pg. 132
- For more on early Medieval traditions of Saint Valentine's Day, see: Diehl, D., & Donnelly, M. (2011). Medieval celebrations: your guide to planning and hosting spectacular feasts, parties, weddings, and renaissance fairs (2nd ed). Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books.
- For more on late Medieval traditions and the growing popularity of Valentine's Day then, see: Skarmeas, N. J., & Venturi-Pickett, S. (1999). The Story of Valentine’s Day. Nashville, Tenn.: Candy Cane Press.
- For more on Charles II of Sweden, see: Moore, K. (2011). Roses Are Red ...: a Book for Lovers. London, UK: Michael O’Mara.
- For more on how modern Valentine's day traditions started, see: Lee, R. W. (1984). A history of valentines. Wellesley Hills, Mass.: Lee Publications.
- For more on how Valentine's Day is celebrated around the world today, see: Williams, V. (2017). Celebrating life customs around the world: from baby showers to funerals. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO.