The history behind Valentine’s Day

Valentine photo


Yet again that dreaded time of year approaches, where sickly magenta hearts fill shop windows, and couples exchange loving glances over cocktails or coffee. But whether you’re loved up and planning a romantic getaway, or plan to stay inside all day with your life size poster of Justin Bieber (just kidding), it’s good to know a little history of the day. That way, you can still loathe the idea, but have some information up your sleeve to back up your derisive remarks.

The history of this oh-so-romantic day began, surprisingly, in a totally unromantic, and rather apocryphal fashion. During the reign of Emperor Claudius, a roman priest known as St. Valentine went against the church by conducting illegitimate wedding ceremonies, maintaining that marriage was one of God’s intentions.  He carried them out despite the fact that the church had banned the marriage of young people on the basis that men fought less well at war if they were married and had a family. Valentine’s success was his downfall, and he was jailed and executed, but not before he fell for the daughter of the jailer. In AD 269, supposedly on 14th February, shortly before his execution that involved beating, stoning and beheading, he wrote a note to the daughter, signing it ‘from your Valentine’. And thus started the tradition we know today.

However, it wasn’t until 1382 when Chaucer wrote Parlement of Foules that the date was thought to be linked with a celebration of love. He writes ‘For this was on St. Valentine’s Day/When every fowl cometh there to choose his mate’, but the exact date was not mentioned. Speculations were that it actually referred to May 2nd, which was a saint’s day for Valentine of Genoa, and this made more sense as it seemed a more suitable time for fowl to be mating.

The first concrete Valentine’s Day letter was sent by Charles, the Duke of Orleans, around 1400, while he was being kept in the Tower of London, having been captured at the 1415 Battle of Agincourt. Shakespeare, a mere two hundred years later, then made a reference to Valentine’s Day in Hamlet: ‘To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s Day,/All the morning betime,/And I a maid at your window,/To be your Valentine.

Eighteenth-century England saw the exchange of items such as flowers, confectionery and cards, some being made of paper and lace, and the growing affordability of the postal service enabled anonymous cards to be sent. Soon, by the early 1800s, cards started to be mass-produced. However, it wasn’t until 1913, when Hallmark cards produced their first Valentine’s Day card, that Valentine’s Day became a holiday.

The tradition really took off in the mid 1980s, with the holiday affecting sales of jewellery, chocolate, flowers and cards. Nowadays, Valentine’s Day generates roughly $14.7 billion in the United States, and this year an estimated £880 million will be spent on the day, with mostly men paying!

So for all the taken men out there: if this article is any inspiration to you, you’d better get planning!

Photograph by Claire Thompson via Flickr.

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