Anne of Bohemia, Charles, Duke of Orleans, chocolates, dinner, fancy valentines, Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, February 14, flowers, Geoffrey Chaucer, gifts, history, jewelry, John Donne, Juno Februata, King Richard II, love spoons, Lupercalia, Margery Brewes, mechanical valentines, pagan festivals, paper lace valentines, paper valentines, Parlement of Foules, poems, Pope Galasius, Richard Cadbury, romantic dinner, Shakespeare, St Valentine’s Day, The Young Man’s Valentine Writer, valentine cards, Valentine of Genoa, Valentine of Rome, Valentine of Terni, Valentine's Day, Via Flaminia
(originally published to Bubblews writing site, now gone)
Valentine’s Day is celebrated by many countries around the world on February 14. Couples celebrate by exchanging cards and gifts such as flowers, chocolate or jewelry and might go out for a romantic dinner.
Some sources say that Valentine’s Day has its origins in two Roman pagan festivals: Lupercalia and Juno Februata. Other sources deny this connection. Lupercalia honored Lupercus, the god of fertility and husbandry, and involved Luperci or male priests running around Rome dressed in loincloths of sacrificed goats and smeared with their blood, flogging women with februa or pieces of goat skin to make them more fertile. It was celebrated on February 15.
Juno Februata was the goddess of love, women and marriage. On February 14, the names of teenage girls went into a box. Each teenage boy would draw the name of a girl and the new couple were sexual partners at feasts and parties and for the rest of the year. Some sources, however, say the tradition of drawing names didn’t start until the Middle Ages.
It seems as though these traditions were carried on for centuries, before Pope Galasius in CE494 replaced the Juno Februata festival with the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, and in CE496 replaced Lupercalia with St Valentine’s Day and changed the date to February 14. The day would have been named after Valentine of Rome, a Christian martyr of this time whose skull is still exhibited there. However, there are different versions of what event replaced what and whether there is any connection to today’s Valentine’s Day.
There were at least a couple of other Christian martyrs called Valentine. One is Valentine of Terni who was buried on 14 February 273, and a third one mentioned in the Catholic Encyclopedia. They are all honored on February 14. Valentine of Terni and Valentine of Rome were both buried on Via Flaminia, Rome, and there is uncertainty as to whether they are two people or one. The Catholic Church recognises about 11 other saints called Valentine.
The first connection of Valentine’s Day with romance may be Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem in 1382, Parlement of Foules, when he wrote:
“For this was on seynt Volantyns day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make [chose his mate]”
The poem honors the engagement of King Richard II and Anne of Bohemia on 2 May 1381. Chaucer may have been referring to Valentine of Genoa whose day is 3 May, a more likely time for birds to be mating in England than February.
However, at least three other poems about birds mating on Valentine’s Day around this time were by Otton de Grandson, John Gower, and Pardo, a knight from Valencia. Chaucer may have got the idea from de Grandson, who died before Chaucer was born. Gower, a friend of Chaucer, was perhaps the first to mention romantic letter writing and gift giving on 14 February in Ballades in 1399-1400.
The earliest known valentine was a poem sent by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife from the Tower of London, where he was initially held after his capture at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. He was held in various places for 24 years.
The first known valentine in English was by Margery Brewes to future husband John Paston in 1477. Shakespeare wrote about Valentine’s Day in Hamlet in 1600-1601, as did John Donne in his poem on the marriage of Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia, and Frederick V on 14 February 1613. “Mechanical valentines”, cards with sketches and verses already written, began to appear in the late 1700s. A book, The Young Man’s Valentine Writer, had ready-made verses that men could copy onto a card and send to their lover.
By the early 1800s, there were paper valentines and fancy valentines of lace and ribbon, and 60,000 valentine cards were sent through the mail in Britain in 1835. The US had embossed paper lace valentines by the late 1840s. The practice of sending cards on Valentine’s Day became more and more popular, with mass-produced cards replacing handwritten ones.
The practice of giving gifts on Valentine’s Day is generally more recent, although goes back to at least 1400 when Gower mentioned it. Gifts of hand carved wooden love spoons go back to at least 1667, in Wales, although these were not part of Valentine’s Day celebrations until much more recently. The first chocolates for this day were made by Richard Cadbury in the late 1800s. Gift giving was less common than card giving until after the mid 20th century, when flowers and chocolates became popular gifts. Jewelry became a popular gift in the 1980s.
In the US, valentine cards are no longer associated only with partners or lovers, but are also given to children and to teachers. Sending valentine cards electronically has also become popular in the last 10-15 years.
Valentine’s Day activities have spread to many non-Western countries in recent decades, although they have been banned in some Muslim countries due to Christianity connections and people arrested.