Today is Valentine’s Day which worldwide is celebrated as the day of love. Also called Saint Valentine’s Day or the Feast of Saint Valentine, Valentine’s Day is celebrated annually on February 14 and originated as a Christian feast day honouring one or two early Christian martyrs named Saint Valentine and, through later folk traditions, has become a significant cultural, religious, and commercial celebration of romance and love in many regions of the world.
There are several martyrdom stories associated with the various Valentines connected to February 14, including an account of the imprisonment of Saint Valentine of Rome for ministering to Christians persecuted under the Roman Empire in the third century. According to an early tradition, Saint Valentine restored sight to the blind daughter of his jailer and numerous later additions to the legend have better related it to the theme of love. An 18th-century embellishment to the legend claims he wrote the jailer’s daughter a letter signed “Your Valentine” as a farewell before his execution while another addition posits that Saint Valentine performed weddings for Christian soldiers who were forbidden to marry.
The Feast of Saint Valentine was established by Pope Gelasius I in 496 AD to be celebrated on February 14 in honour of Saint Valentine of Rome, who died on that date in 269 AD. The day became associated with romantic love in the 14th and 15th centuries when notions of courtly love flourished, apparently by association with the lovebirds of early spring. In 18th century England, it grew into an occasion in which couples expressed their love for each other by presenting flowers, offering confectionery, and sending greeting cards, known as valentines. By the 1900s printed cards began to replace written letters due to improvements in printing technology. Ready-made cards were an easy way for people to express their emotions in a time when direct expression of one’s feelings was discouraged. Cheaper postage rates also contributed to an increase in the popularity of sending Valentine’s Day greetings. The Valentine’s Day symbols that are used today include the heart-shaped outline, doves, and the figure of the winged Cupid. In Italy, Saint Valentine’s Keys are given to lovers as a romantic symbol and an invitation to unlock the giver’s heart, as well as to children to ward off epilepsy, also known as Saint Valentine’s Malady. Americans probably began exchanging hand-made valentines in the early 1700s. Today, according to the Greeting Card Association, an estimated 145 million Valentine’s Day cards are sent each year, making Valentine’s Day the second largest card-sending holiday of the year, after Christmas.
An official feast day in the Anglican Communion and the Lutheran Church, the day is not a public holiday anywhere. Many parts of the Eastern Orthodox Church also celebrate Saint Valentine’s Day on July 6 in honour of the Roman presbyter Saint Valentine, and on July 30 in honour of Hieromartyr Valentine, the Bishop of Interamna in modern-day Terni, Italy.
While the European folk traditions connected with Saint Valentine and St. Valentine’s Day have become marginalised by the modern Anglo-American customs connecting the day with romantic love, some remaining associations connect the saint with the advent of spring. While the custom of sending cards, flowers, chocolates and other gifts originated in the UK, Valentine’s Day remains connected with various regional customs in England. In Norfolk, a character called Jack Valentine knocks on the rear door of houses leaving sweets and presents for children with many children scared of this mystical person. In Slovenia, Saint Valentine or Zdravko was one of the saints of spring, the saint of good health and the patron of beekeepers and pilgrims as the belief is that plants and flowers start to grow on this day and has been celebrated as the day when the first work in the vineyards and the fields commences. The day is also said to mark the beginning of spring.
The oldest known valentine still in existence today was a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt. (The greeting is now part of the manuscript collection of the British Library in London, England.) Several years later, it is believed that King Henry V hired a writer named John Lydgate to compose a valentine note to Catherine of Valois.
Cupid is often portrayed on Valentine’s Day cards as a naked cherub launching arrows of love at unsuspecting lovers. But the Roman God Cupid has his roots in Greek mythology as the Greek god of love, Eros. Accounts of his birth vary; some say he is the son of Nyx and Erebus; others, of Aphrodite and Ares; still others suggest he is the son of Iris and Zephyrus or even Aphrodite and Zeus, who would have been both his father and grandfather. According to the Greek Archaic poets, Eros was a handsome immortal who played with the emotions of Gods and men, using golden arrows to incite love and leaden ones to sow aversion. It wasn’t until the Hellenistic period that he began to be portrayed as the mischievous, chubby child he’d become on Valentine’s Day cards.
Giving red roses may be an obvious romantic gesture today on Valentine’s Day, but it wasn’t until the late 17th century that giving flowers became a popular custom. The practice can be traced back to when King Charles II of Sweden learned the language of flowers which pairs different flowers with specific meanings on a trip to Persia and subsequently introduced the tradition to Europe. The act of giving flowers then became a popular trend during the Victorian Era, including on Valentine’s Day, with red roses symbolising deep love.
So here’s wishing everyone a very Happy Valentine’s Day. Remember, where there is love, there is life!