From Martyrdom to religious feast to a love and romance extravaganza

How February 14 was branded as Valentine's Day: a celebration of love and romance

The ornaments, lights and trees are packed away and cleaned up. The last drop of eggnog has been drunk (or thrown away because the carton expired). The ugly sweaters have been exchanged or returned. That’s right, Christmas is over, as is New Year’s, and it’s time to relax and return to normalcy right? Wrong. It’s time to prepare for Valentine’s Day!

It seems that just as Christmas ends, Valentine’s Day begins, and while most of us know the root of the celebration of Christmas, no one seems to know the true origins and reason for Valentine’s Day. Is it a religious holiday? Is it a national holiday? Is it a “Hallmark holiday?” How did Valentine’s Day come about, and why do we celebrate it?


The man, the myth, the legend

While there were a few early Christian saints by the name Valentinus, the most popular martyrology associated with Saint Valentine dates back to the Roman Empire. This Saint Valentine was imprisoned for performing weddings for soldiers who were forbidden to marry as well as for ministering to Christians who were persecuted by the Romans. While Saint Valentine was imprisoned, it was rumored that he healed his jailer’s daughter. Supposedly, it was also he who wrote the first “Valentine:” a note to the jailer’s daughter signed, how else, “Your Valentine.” Saint Valentine was buried February 14, the day we celebrate Valentine’s Day today.

Saint Valentine + February 14 = love and romance?

Saint Valentine martyred himself for love and was buried February 14; those connections to the modern Valentine’s Day are clear, but how did love and romance come about? Romantic love didn’t come to play until the Middle Ages when the tradition of courtly love was flourishing. In fact, it was Geoffrey Chaucer, a famous English poet, who first linked love to Valentine’s Day in the Parlement of Foules (1382): “for this was on Saint Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.” Chaucer wrote this poem to commemorate the first anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia. At this point in time, Valentine’s Day was simply celebrated as a religious feast day in honor of Saint Valentine’s martyrdom. Chaucer’s poem dared to add a stronger and more focused element of romantic love.


Through the ages

After Chaucer, other poems such as Gammer Gurton’s Garland (1784): “the rose is red, the violet’s blue…,” continued to link love to Valentine’s Day up to the 18th-century where in England Valentine’s Day had evolved into an occasion where lovers expressed their feelings for each other by exchanging confectionary, flowers and greeting cards well-known by then as “Valentines.”

By the 19th-century, handwritten Valentines gave way to mass-produced greeting cards.

By the 20th-century, exchanging mass-produced greeting cards expanded to include all manner of gifts. Those gifts were typically chocolates sold in heart-shaped red satin boxes and roses.

By the 1980s, the diamond industry began to promote Valentine’s Day as the perfect occasion to gift jewelry.

Christmas has Santa, Easter has the bunny, Valentine's Day has…

Today Cupid is an icon of Valentine’s Day as he is often portrayed drawing his bow to inspire romantic love. This is due to pop culture linking Cupid as an icon to Cupid’s origins as the god of affection, attraction, desire and erotic love. However, Cupid wasn’t always the symbol of Valentine’s Day, there was another contender that never really caught on.

In Norfolk (England), a character called Jack Valentine would visit houses were children lived knocking on the back door and leaving gifts and sweets. Even though this mystical person was leaving presents and treats, many children were scared of Jack, so he didn’t last long as the Valentine mascot.


Anti-Valentine’s Day

Not all cultures celebrate Valentine’s Day on February 14 as is done in the United Kingdom and the United States as well as many other Western countries. Usually this is because February 14 falls on or too closely to another holiday. However, there are some countries that just plain don’t like what Valentine’s Day stands for.

India is one of those countries shunning the celebration of Valentine’s Day. This is because a day where the public admission of love is in conflict with Indian culture i.e. arranged marriages, full-time mothers and Hindu joint family living to name a few. Islamic traditionalists are doing their best to discourage youth from participating, but since 1992 when celebrations started catching on, Valentine’s Day has only become more popular.


Today Valentine’s Day still has religious roots in the Anglican Communion and Lutheran Church as a feast day in honor of Saint Valentine. Typically though, Valentine’s Day has evolved into a day for lovers to express themselves through the gifting of chocolates, flowers, greeting cards, diamond earrings and fancy dinners. Although, now that it’s known that Valentine’s Day originated from a Saint who ministered love and died leaving a “Valentine” to a jailer’s daughter, perhaps the day will be branded in a more meaningful way.

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