The history and importance of Valentine’s Day will become more than evident this February 14th, with widespread gestures of affection, hope and love. With so much pessimism and bad news in the world today, Valentine’s Day is a welcome opportunity to bring optimism, hope and love to the forefront of our minds. But with so much commercialism attached to many religious festivals and national days of importance, it is easy to overlook the history, meaning and importance of Valentine’s Day. How did this day originate, and why are Roman images of Cupid associated strongly with a Christian Saint, at a time of importance to Pagan traditions?
Of the many millions who will be celebrating, or taking the opportunity to make tentative moves, or even propose this February 14th, there is no doubt that many faiths will be represented, and many who have no particular faith at all. Perhaps because the concept of love is at the heart of this occasion, there is barely a soul on earth who cannot appreciate its relevance. But beyond the commercialism, the expensive cards, the hand-tied bouquets and the luxury boxes of chocolates, Valentine’s has a mixed and fascinating history, and even the truth about who Valentine really was is shrouded in much speculation and myth.
The origins of this day lie in pagan times, although Valentine’s Day has seen a remarkable transition from pagan tradition to religious festival, and from religious festival to a day of national celebration – some might argue, of commercial celebration. For most of us, wherever we live in the world, and whatever our beliefs, February 14th has a long standing reputation for being a day of romance and of love. In some cases this is seen as being the love of one person for another in a romantic way, but elsewhere Valentine’s Day is seen more as an opportunity to make small gestures towards friends.
February 14th used to be a Roman custom, very much within the pagan tradition. It was the Eve of Lupercalia, and was primarily a festival of fertility. The tradition in Rome was to hold what was effectively a lottery, where boys and girls were paired off with each other at random. Many of these pairings evolved into firm friendships and even marriages. Throughout the following days of the feast other pagan traditions of a less romantic bent would be carried out, including ritual sacrifices, bathing in blood, and whipping in the streets.
Needless to say, when the Catholic Church stepped in, many of these traditions were stopped, and although the love lottery survived, boys were paired with saints rather than girls, and this is when Saint Valentine became synonymous with the date.
It isn’t easy to be clear who exactly Valentine was, since there are eleven different Saint Valentines recorded by the Catholic Church. However, three in particular stand out, two of which are thought to be the most likely contenders. The first of these St Valentines was a Christian Priest who was executed on February 14th in 269 AD. The emperor of Rome at the time, Claudius II had passed a law banning marriage, because a significant number of men were getting married as a way to avoid the obligation which they would otherwise face of joining the army. St Valentine carried out many secret marriages however, and during the time when he was waiting to be executed, many romantic couples sent him letters in support of love over war. It was in 496 AD that Pope Gelasius decreed that February 14th should be set as a day to honour him – neatly converting the pagan traditions into a Catholic celebration.
The other possible St Valentine was also a priest who was imprisoned for helping Christians. Whilst imprisoned he fell in love with the daughter of his jailer, with his many secret notes and letters being signed ‘from your Valentine’. He was eventually beheaded.
But how did this religious celebration become so associated with romantic love, and far less associated with religion, or Saint Valentine himself? The most likely moment when romance became associated is in 1381 when Geoffrey Chaucer wrote a poem in honour of the engagement between Richard II of England and Anne of Bohemia. This poem, entitled ‘The Parliament of Fowls’ is the first known case of linking engagement, the mating season and Saint Valentine’s together, and may well have caused the increased importance and romantic connotations we see today.
Roughly a billion Valentines cards are sent each year – the vast majority of these being sent by women. The first known Valentine card was sent about 35 years after Chaucer wrote his poem. This card was sent by the Duke of Orleans to his wife during his imprisonment at the Tower of London in 1415. Another 80 years later King Henry VIII declared February 14th to be St Valentine’s Day by Royal Charter.
However, today the only religious associations still upheld are the original pagan ones, with modern day Wicca still enjoying the opportunity to celebrate love and fertility, although with rather less blood and whipping than in Roman times! The Feast of Lupercalia is still celebrated by many modern followers of Wicca, and although the sending of Valentine’s cards may not be a traditional pagan tradition, many followers of various branches of modern Wicca do send gifts, cards or tokens of affection. However, it is viewed very much as being of greater value if sent anonymously, as with charitable donations.
The Catholic church decided to remove Valentine’s Day from its liturgical calendar in 1969, since when it has no longer been recognised as a religious celebration at all – the occasion has come full circle it seems, though not without a generous helping of fascinating traditions and associations – not to mention much commercialism too.
Many of the traditions we associate with February 14th may well be pagan in origin, but there is much variety nationally, and even regionally. For example, in some parts of Europe, such as the United Kingdom and Italy, the tradition is for women to get up early, before sunrise, and watch through the window. The belief, or at least the tradition, is that the first man they see will be the man they will marry within the year. In some regions this idea has been watered down slightly, possibly due to the limit in the number of available milkmen and postmen, with the belief that the first man seen through the window will look similar to the man they will marry.
Elsewhere in Europe, such as in Denmark, snowdrops are pressed and sent to close friends. Another tradition is to send a Valentine’s Day card, but to replace the letters of the sender’s name with dots – one dot per letter of the name. Should the recipient correctly guess who the sender is from this clue, then the sender should reward their Valentine with an egg at Easter.
Surprisingly, Valentine’s Day is now widely celebrated in many parts of Asia, such as Singapore, China and South Korea. This has largely been achieved not through religious tradition, but through marketing and commercialisation, and it is of little surprise that Asians tend to spend far more on average when it comes to Valentine’s gifts than anywhere else.
Japan has developed yet another variation on the theme of Valentine’s Day, with women being expected to give chocolates to all of the men they work with. The favour is then returned a month later with another variation of Valentine’s Day being celebrated on March 14th, though this time it is the turn of the men to give chocolate to all of the women who gave them chocolate the previous month. More recently chocolate has been replaced with other less unhealthy alternatives, such as jewellery and even lingerie.
Another month later, on April 14th, a third variation is to be witnessed in South Korea, where a similar tradition to Japan has taken place in February and March, but in April anyone who was unlucky enough not to receive anything in either February or March goes to a restaurant to eat Chinese black noodles, as a way of mourning their single status! South Korea is perhaps where the concept of Valentines has been embraced most widely, with the 14th of every month of the year having some love related significance.
So from pagan feast, to a religious celebration of a Christian martyr, to an international day when love and friendship are celebrated in style, Valentine’s Day reminds us that spring is just around the corner, good things are starting to happen, the world is becoming a warmer place, and romantic ideas blossom as optimistically as the cherry trees under which misty eyed lovers ponder their fortunes. Love may not make the world go round, but it at least makes the journey more worthwhile.