Valentine’s Day is celebrated every February 14 as couples across the globe honor their spouses, partners and sweethearts. Hundreds of years of traditions and customs have made it into the holiday we observe today. When it rolls around lovers and friends exchange chocolates, jewelry and other gifts. Although this popular holiday has become known for its sweet Hallmark cards and romantic dinner ideas for two, the history of Valentine’s Day is actually pretty dark.
St. Valentines wasn’t just one person. There is actually some confusion surrounding which St. Valentine the holiday technically honors. One Valentine was a priest in third century Rome who defied Emperor Claudius II’s ban on marriage (he thought it distracted the young soldiers), illegally marrying couples in the spirit of love until he was caught and sentenced to death. The other legend suggests that Valentine was killed attempting to help Christians escape prison in Rome, and that he actually sent the first “valentine” message himself while imprisoned, writing a letter which he signed “From you Valentine”.
Some trace Valentine’s Day origins to a Christian effort to replace a pagan fertility festival that dated back to the 6th century BC. During the festival of Lupercalia, Roman priests would sacrifice goats and dogs and use their blood soaked hides to slap women on the streets, as a fertility blessing. According to legend, women would later put their names in an urn and be selected to be paired with a man for the year.
Every year, thousands of romantics send letters addressed to Verona, Italy to “Juliet,” the subject of the timeless romantic tragedy, “Romeo and Juliet.” The city marks the location of the Shakespearean tale. The letters that reach the city are dutifully answered by a team of volunteers from the Juliet Club. Each year they award the “Cara Giulietta” (Dear Juliet) prize to the author of the most touching love letter.
The Valentine’s Day tradition of giving a box of chocolates was started in the 19th century by Richard Cadbury, a scion of a British chocolate manufacturing family. With a new technique recently established at the company to create more varieties of chocolate, Cadbury pounced on the opportunity to sell chocolates in heart boxes as part of the beloved holiday.
History’s first valentine was written in perhaps one of the most unromantic places conceivable: a prison. Charles, Duke of Orleans wrote to the love of his life (second wife) at the age of 21 while captured at the Battle of Agincourt. As a prisoner for more than 20 years, he would never see his valentine’s reaction to the poem he penned to her in the early 15th century.
During the Victoria Era, those who didn’t want the attention of certain suitors would anonymously send “vinegar valentines.” These cards, also called Penny dreadful, were the antithesis of customary valentines, comically insulting and rejecting unwanted admirers. They were later used to target suffragettes in the late 19th and early 20th century.
The term “wearing your heart on your sleeve” may have origins in picking a valentine. Smithsonian reports that during the Middle Ages, men would draw the names of women who they would be paired with for the upcoming year while attending a Roman festival honoring Juno. After choosing, the men wore the names on their sleeves to show their bond during the festivities.
The iconic chalky heart-shaped candies that have been passed out lovingly every Valentine’s Day started out as lozenges. According to the Food Business News, pharmacist and inventor Oliver Chase created a machine that would quickly create the heart shaped lozenges before switching to using the machine to create candy – later known as Necco Wafers. Chase’s brother came up with the idea to print messages on the candy in 1866, and the candies got their heart shape in 1901, appealing specifically to Valentine’s Day sweethearts.
The chubby baby with wings and a bow and arrow that we call Cupid has been associated with Valentine’s Day for centuries. However, before he was renamed Cupid, he was known by the ancient Greeks as Eros, the god of love. Eros, the son of Greek goddess Aphrodite, would use two sets of arrows – one for love and another for hate – to play with the emotions of his targets. It wasn’t until stories of his mischief were told by the Romans that he adopted the childlike appearance that we recognize today.
The idea of using a kiss to sign off on valentines also has a long history according to the Washington Post. The use of “X” came to represent Christianity, or the cross, in the Middle Ages. During the same time, the symbol was used to sign off on documents. After marking with an X, the writer would often kiss the mark as a sign of their oath. As the gesture grew among the kings and commoners to certify books, letters and paperwork, these records were describes as having been “sealed with a kiss.”
International Quirkyalone Day is the holiday for single people the same date. The holiday isn’t an anti-Valentine Day event, but rather a moment to celebrate self love and platonic relationships. It has been celebrated globally since 2003.
- Nearly 6 million couples get engaged on Valentine’s Day.
- 8 million conversation hearts (those candy hearts with words on them Nedco Wafers) are manufactured every year and they have a shelf life of five years.
- Americans spent over $20 billion on Valentine’s Day gifts in 2019 and is was expected that in 2020, they would spend $27.4 billion.
And last but not least, Lovebirds are actually birds…It’s the common name for the Agapornis bird which is native to the continent of Africa and they typically travel in pairs, which is why many couples are referred to as lovebirds.
Happy Valentine’s Day to all those who celebrate it.
Sources: History.com and goodhousekeeping.com