Valentine’s Day in the 21st century evokes traditional customs and symbols like hearts, candy, and Valentine’s Day flowers, romantic dinners, and memorable dates. Some put a modern spin on the holiday by making it all about friendship with Galentine’s Day celebrations. But the history of Valentine’s Day reveals a dark and violent road to the romance of today’s rosy affair.
The focus throughout history is on romantic love, whether rescuing it, encouraging it or celebrating it. Fortunately today, we can celebrate, and we do, all around the world. But it’s always a good idea to take a look at how we got here.
Valentine’s Day History
There are at least three martyrs named Valentine or Valentinus recognized by the Catholic Church. Each of their stories can be tied to the holiday we now celebrate.
The most common legend surrounding Valentine’s Day centers around a third-century priest. Roman Emperor Claudius II concluded that single men made better soldiers than men who were married with families. So in order to ensure military strength, the emperor outlawed marriage! The priest, Valentine, in defiance of the law, continued to perform weddings. Ultimately he was discovered, jailed, and executed.
Some insist that the day is named for another, Saint Valentine of Terni, a bishop who was also beheaded by Claudius II. Other stories point to a Saint Valentine who helped Christians escape Roman prisons, where they were tortured. In at least one account, it was this Valentine who sent the first “Valentine greeting”, from jail. The correspondence was said to have been a love letter to a girl, possibly the jailer’s daughter, who visited him. He signed it, From Your Valentine. There are accounts identifying these two as the same person and those that clearly separate them. In any case, it seems the name Valentine is steeped in love and death.
A Pagan Connection
While these stories link February 14 to the anniversary of the saint’s death, some believe the date was chosen by the Catholic Church to coincide with the pagan celebration of Lupercalia, in an effort to Christianize the holiday. The fertility festival falls on February 15, with the men of the town sacrificing a goat for fertility and a dog for purification, dipping the hides in blood and slapping the single women and crop fields with them. This was meant to bring fertility. Later in the day, the names of all the single women would be put in an urn and each man would choose a name. They would pair for the festival, and sometimes for life.
Lupercalia was deemed unchristian and outlawed at the end of the 5th century. With the pagan holiday off the calendar, Pope Gustavus declared February 14 Saint Valentine’s Day.
While these stories point to the possible origins of the holiday, the theme that grew out of them is based on some common qualities of Saint Valentine: they’re heroic, romantic, and sympathetic. So the holiday continued in the tradition of romantic love. This takes us to the 14th Century, with writers like Geoffrey Chaucer (of Canterbury Tales fame) and the practice of courtly love (the medieval literary conception of love that emphasized nobility and chivalry.) By the 18th century, the holiday had evolved into one where lovers sent one another flowers, confectionery, and greeting cards.
History of Cupid
The mention of Cupid conjures images of a cherub, swathed and wielding a bow and arrow. But the original Cupid was a mythological figure also known as Eros, Eros, or Cupid, who used his arrows to tease the emotions of mortals and gods. Golden arrows inspired love, and lead arrows stirred aversion. Eros is portrayed as handsome and alluring. The eventual shift to portraying Cupid as a cherub seems to stem from the association of cherubs with heaven and purity.
History of Valentine’s Day Flowers
The history of Valentine’s Day flowers might have developed more recently than that of the holiday itself.
In the 18th century, introduced by Charles II of Sweden, the custom of sending floral bouquets to pass on non-verbal messages became more mainstream. Each flower had a specific meaning attached to it, making it possible to have an entire conversation using only flowers. This form of communication is called floriography, or the cryptological communication through the arrangement of flowers.
Red roses meant – what else? – Romance, and thus is the most commonly given flower on Valentine’s Day. Pink roses meant gratitude and appreciation, whereas white meant innocence and purity. Carnations, another popular Valentine’s Day choice, meant an aching heart and admiration.
During the Victorian Era, floriography became commonly used to express messages that Victorian etiquette deemed unacceptable to share openly. The language of flowers was much more than the singular meaning given to a flower, it was also the combining, presenting, and receiving of flowers. The first flower dictionary was written in 1819 in Paris, followed closely by an entire book written by Miss Corruthers of Inverness, which quickly became the guide to the meanings behind flowers throughout England and the United States.
The Victorian Era opened the door to the floral industry in two ways: first, it popularized the
sending and receiving of bouquets, and second, it brought floral design into the public lexicon. Alongside the introduction of floriography came traditional bouquet arrangements as we know them. Think a nosegay bouquet or a tussie-mussie.
So it seems we send today’s Valentine’s Day flowers as part of a long-standing tradition of love and admiration. While we might not be sending secret messages in bouquets, floral “love letters” are popular with long-distance couples, and we definitely pay attention to things like color, bloom choice, and presentation.
Valentine’s Day Around the World
Not surprisingly, St. Valentine fast became the most popular saint in European countries like France and England, and many countries celebrate Valentine’s Day much the way we do. In Mexico and Canada, February 14 is a day to show your love to someone special, and their customs are similar to ours as well. But there are some countries that have a unique spin on the day.
In Japan, it’s the women doing the romancing. On February 14, women give men chocolates and gifts. The men can’t return the gifts until March 14, the day called White Day, when it’s the men’s turn to buy women gifts – white gifts and white chocolate.
The gift-giving tradition in South Korea is the same as in Japan, with women giving gifts in February and men giving in March. But they don’t stop there. South Koreans love their love, and they celebrate often. The Day of Love is in February, the Day of Roses in May, the Day of Kisses in June, the Day of Hugs in December. And while the men buy gifts on White Day, there’s also Black Day, when single people eat noodles together to celebrate being single!
The Philippines may have the most romantic Valentine’s Day of all. Filipinos love celebrating special occasions, and Valentine’s Day is considered part of the culture. Many young couples are married on Valentine’s Day at a public gala wedding sponsored by the government. There are themed celebrations and themed food and other vendors in the streets, and joyous gift exchanges. The word “love” is even in their constitution!
In Ghana, it’s all about chocolate! They celebrate National Chocolate Day on February 14, and in addition to red clothing and decorations, gifts and flowers, the real focus is on gifts of chocolate. They are the second largest chocolate producer in the world, so you could say they’re giving us all the gift of chocolate!
Valentine’s Day by the Numbers
Valentine’s Day is a big shopping holiday, with the average American spending around $165. 41% of shoppers bought Valentine’s Day gifts online.
- 54% gave gifts to significant other
- 27% gave gifts to pets
- 17% gave gifts to family
- 7% gave gifts to friends
- 6% gave gifts to classmates
As for dollars spent on Valentine’s Day gift-giving, the numbers break down like this:
- $5.8 billion on jewelry
- $2.3 billion on flowers
- $2 billion on gift cards
- $1.3 billion on greeting cards
And 58 million pounds of chocolate!
Make Your Own History this Valentine’s Day
Despite its troubled history, Valentine’s Day has always been about love all around the world. This year, add a chapter in your personal Valentine’s Day story with a unique bouquet of fresh, long-lasting flowers from The Bouqs. We know you’ll find the perfect way to show your love! Also, if you like learning about the history of Valentine’s Day, check out some fun Valentine’s Day trivia.Shop All