The Secret History of Valentine’s Day

By Audrey W. | Arcadia Staff
Every year on Valentine’s Day, lovers, friends, and families express their love for each other by gifting cards, flowers, and other small items. Despite being a widespread cultural event, there is actually very little known about how this tradition came to fruition. The legendary Saint Valentine is often placed at its core, but there are numerous stories surrounding his life. To understand how Valentine’s Day emerged in its contemporary form, we’re examining the events that shaped this celebration.
 The Myths of Valentine’s Day
 
There are several different versions of the Saint Valentine’s legend attributed with the modern holiday. In most cases, there is no supporting historical evidence, but they have continued to percolate through the centuries, and have left a mark on how we think about Valentine today. One myth claims Valentine was a priest who lived in third century Rome. He earned a reputation for performing illegal marriages for young couples after Claudius II banned marriage in a bid to make more young men soldiers. He was eventually arrested, declared guilty, and executed.
 
In another version of the myth, Valentine helped Christians escape Roman imprisonment, where they were being starved and tortured. He was known for being a devout Christian and had dedicated followers despite the faith being outlawed. Most of his listeners were children. Eventually, Valentine was imprisoned for illegally preaching the Christian faith, and was told he’d be released if he began to worship Roman gods. Rumor has it, Valentine refused the offer, and then went a step further by trying to convert the Emperor to Christianity. The story claims that he was so missed by the children he once preached to that they started fitting loving notes and flowers between the bars of his cell. This may help explain the popular tradition of exchanging flowers and cards on Valentine’s Day. According to legend, this version of events ended with Valentine’s beheading on February 14th.
 
A third story more traditionally linked with a contemporary version of Valentine’s Day describes Valentine sending the first ever “valentine” greeting to a young woman with whom he was in love. Supposedly, on the night before he was due to be executed for practicing Christianity, he wrote a letter to this woman and confessed his love for her. He signed the letter “From your Valentine” – a saying found on many modern Valentine’s Day cards.

A Valentine’s Day float in the 1953 Needles holiday parade.While the absolute truth of Valentine’s life remains unknown, he is consistently painted as a kind-hearted and resilient character in history who was punished for his unwavering belief in the Christian faith. However, it was not until many hundreds of years later that the holiday of Valentine’s Day began to take shape. Some believe Christians claimed February for the holiday as they were trying to “Christianize” the pagan holiday of Lupercalia. Per the holiday traditions, festival members of the Luperci would gather in a cave to sacrifice one goat for fertility and a dog for purification to Romulus and Remus, the founders of ancient Rome. This tale is a controversial one as there is no written record that this contributed to the formation of Valentine’s Day as we know it. By the end of the 5th century, the practice was deemed “un-Christian” and outlawed.
 
Poet Geoffrey Chaucer is another likely figure to have played a hand in associating Valentine’s Day with romance and love. No romantic account of the holiday exists prior to a poem written by Chaucer in 1375, in which he links traditional courtly love with a Valentine’s Day feast. He refers to February 14th as the day that humans come together to find a mate.
 
A later instance of linking Valentine’s Day with romance comes from a story from the court of Charles VI of France in 1400. The court supposedly passed a charter, the Charter of the Court of Love, which declared February 14th an annual celebration, and was attended by members of the royal court. Among the festivities were jousts, feasts, poetry readings, and dancing, and the attending ladies would hear and rule of quarrels between lovers. However, there is no evidence supporting this story, but it does lend itself to the romantic caricature of Valentine’s Day. Together, these legends attempting to explain Valentine’s Day have helped craft a story of the holiday – one of love and appreciation.

An early Valentine’s Day card, featuring a short poem from a young man to his valentine.

Valentine’s Day Today

 It wasn’t until the 17th century that Valentine’s Day truly began to gain traction, but by the middle of the 18th century, it was customary for friends and lovers of every social class to gift small tokens or hand-written notes on the holiday. In 1797, a British publisher released The Young Man’s Valentine Writer - a book composed of romantic verses with the goal of helping young men craft heartfelt valentines of their own. Later, in the 1840s, Ester A. Howland began selling the first mass-produced valentines in America. Her creations were detailed with lace, ribbons, and colorful pictures. Over time, she became known as the “Mother of Valentine.” In 1900, printed cards began replacing hand-written ones, and an entire industry of producing Valentine’s Day-themed cards, flowers, and other gifts was born.
 
Today, most people send cards, flowers, and chocolates as a simple and kind way to convey one’s appreciation for a loved one. In Europe, Saint Valentine’s Keys are exchanged between lovers, a symbol inviting the recipient to unlock the giver’s heart. While the precise history of Valentine’s Day ultimately remains a mystery, the legends that surround the holiday have helped solidify it as a tradition in cultures worldwide. From historic figures martyred for performing illicit marriages, to renowned poets whose work named the holiday, Valentine’s Day is a time to celebrate those who are the most important in our lives.
 
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