There’s no doubt about it, Valentine’s Day is one of America’s most celebrated traditions. Every February 14, candy, flowers, gifts, and love notes are exchanged between friends and loved ones across the United States and in many places around the world, all in the name of St. Valentine.
More than just a Hallmark holiday, Valentine’s Day, like Halloween, is rooted in pagan partying; however, the lovers’ jubilee hasn’t always been associated with romance. Before the ubiquitous candy hearts, roses, and softly lit dinners, there were beheadings, martyred saints, and pagan rituals. Let’s take a look at the history and traditions that made February 14 the love fest it is today.
While the exact origins of Valentine’s Day remain shrouded in mystery, we do know that February has long been celebrated as a month of romance. Some historians consider the Ancient Roman feast Lupercalia, held from February 13 to 15, to be the holiday’s earliest iteration. During the festivities, Roman priests sacrificed a goat and a dog, using strips of the animals’ hides dipped in blood to whip women in the belief that it would make them more fertile. The ritual also included a matchmaking session, with bachelors selecting the names of their “sweethearts” from an urn.
The most popular account of the holiday’s origins date back to a temple priest named, not surprisingly, Valentine, a later-to-be-canonized saint who was executed on February 14 in 270 A.D. by Emperor Claudius II. His crime? Performing illegal marriage ceremonies on the Roman battlefield. Back then, as the story goes, the military-minded Claudius II believed connubial bliss was bad for war and made it illegal for soldiers to wed as a way to encourage them to join the army. Imprisoned for his battlefield-betrothing ways, Valentine, a man of many talents, supposedly healed the blind daughter of his jailer while incarcerated and, the night before his execution, gave the newly sighted young lass a handwritten card signed, “From Your Valentine.” And the rest, as they say, is history.
In 496 A.D. Pope Gelasius declared February 14th as the First Feast Day of Saint Valentine. Whether this was purely a move to honor a Saint, or a strategic effort to Christianize the unsavory pagan Lupercalia, is still a subject of debate.
Of course, as in most historical accounts, there is almost an infinite variety of competing legends. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, there were at least three early Christian saints named Valentine — each of whom were martyred on February 14th. And to make matters even more heartbreaking, the official Roman Catholic roster of saints lists no less than twelve Saints named “Valentine.”
Indeed, depending on where you live and what you believe, it is possible to celebrate St. Valentine’s Day on six different days of the year — November 3, January 7, July 25, July 6 being four of them. Here at Beekman, we prefer February 14, not just because it’s an American tradition, but because February in Upstate NY is pretty bleak, and chocolate keeps our spirits (and blood sugar) high.
It wasn’t until the 14th century, however, that Valentine’s Day was associated with romantic love, and we can thank English poet Geoffrey Chaucer for that. Chaucer’s poem, Parliament of Foules, was the first ever to link the tradition of courtly love with St. Valentine’s day.
For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery foul comyth there to chese his make.
Not everyone agrees that Chaucer was referring to February 14 here, however. Some have argued that he was instead referring to springtime, when birds are more likely to mate in England. But when others, including William Shakespeare, followed suite, exchanging handmade cards and tokens became popular in England. The oldest known Valentine, dating back to 1415, was sent by Charles, Duke of Orleans to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London.
Handwritten Valentine’s Day cards were the tradition until 1847. That’s when Esther Howland, a budding entrepreneur and the “Mother of the Valentine,” began selling the first mass-produced cards in America in the 1840s, after ordering massive amounts of paper and lace from jolly old England, a country where no less than half the population was already in the habit of giving and receiving Valentine’s Day cards. Hallmark Cards entered the scene in 1913, and today, the Greeting Card Association estimates approximately 190 million cards are given each year in the United States alone. That number skyrockets to one billion if you count the number of cards school children exchange.
Of course, when we entered the digital age, the language of love also became the language of computer code, and the art of sending Valentines and declaring on-demand, undying love was forever changed.
Valentine’s Day first went digital 2005. Long before Tinder made swiping a thing for matchmaking apps, there was a little-known video site trying to play cupid to the Internet generation. YouTube originated as an online dating site believe it or not, and its co-founders still credit its invention as the result of, “three guys on Valentine’s Day that had nothing to do.” Maybe the matchmaking feature, though short-lived, was always in the cards, as the founders registered the domain YouTube on February 14. So the next time you default to YouTube for your next, “How to,” search, keep in mind that the world’s largest video site has romantic roots.
Fast forward ten years to 2015, when ride sharing behemoth Uber rolled out, “Romance on Demand,” allowing users to send flowers on Valentine’s Day via the app. This initiative continues to progress, with smartphone skywriting available to love birds in Southern California the following year, sending sweet sentiments sky high.
A social media analytics platform releases a Valentine’ Day “Sentiment Analysis,” measuring how people engage with and discuss the holiday on social media. In total, it measured nine million mentions of Valentine’s Day, with the vast majority of them mentioning a specific brand – Netflix. I guess they have a pretty good idea of when to release everyone’s favorite romantic comedies. The top trending hashtag? #happyvalentinesday.
Like so many other holidays, Valentine’s Day has experienced a transition into pop culture that has shaped the way it’s perceived, discussed, and celebrated. Sure, it’s often accused of being nothing more than an over commercialized, money-making holiday by some lonely hearts out there, but as long as you embrace the spirit of the holiday and its determined patron saint, then you won’t be a blue Valentine.