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When it comes to the widely celebrated holiday, known for its symbolism for love, or as others view it – a clever commercialized marketing scheme, very few actually know of its cultural and historical significance. Valentine’s Day isn’t just some made-up day to increase card and chocolate sales or to celebrate fairytales, but it is one deeply steeped in tradition and significance.
Even though Valentine’s Day may seem like a relatively modern holiday, it’s deep-rooted in history. Some may be familiar with Saint Valentine, but the holiday’s origin even predates that. As much as we make Valentine’s Day a romantic holiday, the history is not quite as rosy, but you most likely will come to that same conclusion.
In Ancient Rome, the Romans spent February 13-15 celebrating the feast of fertility and agriculture called Lupercalia. This feast is nothing like our modern-day get-togethers or dinners. This feast revolved around the wolf Lupa who according to legend helped raise Roman founders Romulus and Remus.
When reading about a feast, you’re probably thinking of lots of food, lots of wine, and lots of laughter, which is all correct. However, the feast also included violence and gore. Doesn’t sound so romantic now, does it?
First, a sacrifice would be made in form of a dog or goat. Then, the men would drink and use the hides to whip women. At the time, many women believed that being whipped would help them conceive. The festivities would end for the night with men pulling names of women they would later bed in hopes of conceiving.
While this event is now very different from how we celebrate modern Valentine’s Day, at that specific time it was an event that both parties willingly participated in. This may be how the Valentine’s Day association with love started.
The Romans greatly influenced the Catholics in their participation in the Valentine’s Day creation. In the 3rd century AD on February 14, Romans (specifically Emperor Claudius the second) executed two men by the name of Valentine. Their religious sacrifice was acknowledged by the Catholic church and led to the creation of St. Valentine’s Day.
In the 5th century, Lupercalia was celebrated in conjunction with St. Valentine’s Day and while it wasn’t celebrated as rambunctiously and savagely as it once was, it was still a day to honor fertility and love. Simultaneously, Galatin’s Day became a more well-known celebration that was practiced by Normans. The word Galatin can be translated to “lover of women” and due to its similar pronunciation to Valentine was most likely confused for the current holiday we have.
Medieval & Elizabethan Eras
Two prolific writers from England, Geoffrey Chaucer, and William Shakespeare were attributed with contributing to the current Valentine’s Day through their works. They began romanticizing it, and that’s how it was quickly turned from a bloody holiday into one with a more positive connotation.
Chaucer wrote “Parlement of Foules”, which is now known as “Parliament of Fowls”; a satirical poem of love and courtship and the pursuit of the male birds to the female bird (very short rough summary).
Shakespeare was a romantic at heart and knew of the Lupercalia festival and celebration of love, which was in his play “Julius Caesar”.
The Victorian Times was the last step to turning this day into the holiday we know today. The Victorian Times introduced handmade cards – flat sheets of paper often with colorful illustrations and sometimes decorated with lace. Materials to make these cards were purchased from a stationer’s shop. Many of these cards had pictures of churches on them, while others had figures like angels. A change in postage also made sending Valentine’s cards a popular romantic gesture, and a poem by James Beaton became almost a prediction of the mass popularity.
“The letters in St. Valentine so vastly will amount,— James beaton, poet
Postmen may judge them by the lot, they won’t have time to count;
They must bring round spades and measures, to poor love-sick souls
Deliver them by bushels, the same as they do coals.”
Through the industrial revolution and the initial focus on handmade cards originating from England, the current obsession with giving cards for Valentine’s was also brought to the U.S. via Hallmark, which is well-known for its cheesy romantic movies and beautifully designed expensive cards. Hallmark started selling these Valentine cards in stores in 1916 – https://corporate.hallmark.com/valentinesslideshow/.
That’s how we got to associate Valentine’s Day with not only love, cards, chocolate, and wine, but as a way to show your appreciation for someone. It should be noted that Valentine’s Day today has evolved into something more. Instead of being reserved for a significant other, it’s now a holiday simply used to let people know they matter and that you care about them.
Enjoy this Catch-a-Valentine cake recipe from the 1950s:
Valentine’s Day is a holiday celebrated in many countries around the world. The U.S. is probably the most vocal about its passion for this day of love, and you see people going to extraordinary lengths to express their feelings for their loved ones. There are also other countries that celebrate the day, including France, Argentina, Mexico, Australia, the UK, and South Korea.
An interesting development is that in the Philippines they may not call Valentine’s Day an official holiday, but coincidentally February 14 has become the most common day to celebrate weddings in a VERY BIG way! Weddings are held in mass production in the Philippines.
Wishing you a lovely and happy Valentine’s Day! XXXOOO