History of Valentine’s Day
The history of St Valentine’s Day from its pre-Christian origins, involving nudity and whipping, to its present incarnation as a commercial free-for-all driving huge sales of chocolate, flowers and jewellery.
By Tom Chivers
In ancient Rome, 13, 14 and 15 February were celebrated as Lupercalia, a pagan fertility festival. This seems to be the basis for a celebration of love on this date. It was marked in a subtly different way in those days, however. According to Noel Lenski, classics professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, speaking in the National Geographic, young men would strip naked and use goat- or dog-skin whips to spank the backsides of young women in order to improve their fertility; an early IVF, if you will.
Circa AD 197
A Christian known as Valentine of Terni is martyred in the reign of Emperor Aurelian. Little is known of his life, except that he was made Bishop of Interamna (now Terni) in AD 197 and died not too long after. He was apparently imprisoned, tortured and beheaded on the Via Flaminia in Rome for his Christianity by the order of a Roman prefect with the oxymoronic name of Placid Furius. According to legend, he died on 14 February, but that is likely a later embellishment.
Circa AD 289
Another Christian, Valentine of Rome, is martyred, this time under Emperor Claudius. A priest or bishop in the city, he was apparently arrested for giving aid to prisoners. While in jail, he is said to have converted his jailer by healing his blind daughter’s sight. According to another, later version, he is said to have fallen in love with the daughter, sending her a note saying “From your Valentine”, but this is apocryphal. In yet another, equally unlikely version, Claudius was claimed to have banned young men from marrying, so that they would make better soldiers, and Valentine was arrested for secretly carrying out weddings. Like his earlier namesake, Valentine of Rome is supposed to have died on 14 February, but – again – this is implausible.
Circa AD 496
The then Pope, Gelasius, declared 14 February to be St Valentine’s Day, a Christian feast day. This is likely to have been an if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them approach to the still-popular pagan festival of Lupercalia.
Geoffrey Chaucer writes his Parlement of Foules (or “Parliament of Fowls”), which is widely taken to be the first lin82king of St Valentine’s Day to romantic love. Celebrating the engagement of Richard II of England and Anne of Bohemia, he wrote: “For this was on St. Valentine’s Day/ When every fowl cometh there to choose his mate.” However, it is thought that this may have referred to 2 May, the saint’s day in the liturgical calendar of Valentine of Genoa – this would be a more likely time for birds to be mating in England.
On St Valentine’s Day a court is opened in Paris, the High Court of Love, dealing with affairs of the heart: marriage contracts, divorces, infidelity, and beaten spouses. A few years later, Charles, the Duke of Orleans (a Frenchman, inevitably) writes the first recorded Valentine’s note to his beloved, while imprisoned in the Tower of London following capture at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.
St Valentine’s Day has entered the popular consciousness to the extent that one William Shakespeare mentions it in Ophelia’s lament in Hamlet: “To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,/All in the morning betime,/And I a maid at your window,/To be your Valentine.”
The passing of love-notes becomes popular in England, a precursor to the St Valentine’s Day card as we know it today. Early ones are made of lace and paper. In 1797, the The Young Man’s Valentine Writer is published, suggesting appropriate rhymes and messages, and as postal services became more affordable, the anonymous St Valentine’s Day card became possible. By the early 19th century, they become so popular that factories start to mass-produce them.
Following the English tradition, Esther Howland of Worcester, Massachusetts, starts producing cards – using the newly available and much cheaper paper lace – in the United States.
If you felt cynical, you might call this date the beginning of the end for St Valentine’s Day as a genuinely romantic event, and the start of its reinvention of a savagely imposed regime of sugar-coated tweeness designed to chisel spare cash out of lovers and would-be lovers worldwide: Hallmark Cards produce their first Valentine. Now the date is the flagship “Hallmark Holiday” – together with Mothers’ Day, Fathers’ Day and so on, a series of celebrations notable more for the need to spend money than any heartfelt sentiment.
The St Valentine’s Day Massacre. A savage and bloody event in itself – five Chicago gangsters lined up and murdered with machine guns, apparently at the behest of Al Capone – but at least it’s a break from the unending stream of saccharine that the history of St Valentine’s Day otherwise entails, and so is welcome here.
The commercialisation continues: noting the sales effect of the holiday on chocolate, flowers and cards, the diamond industry gets involved, promoting St Valentine’s Day as a time for giving jewellery. The “tradition” takes off.
Valentine’s Day generates an estimated $14.7 billion (£9.2 billion) in retail sales in the United States.
An estimated 1 billion St Valentine’s Day cards will be sent worldwide this year, making it the second most card-heavy celebration after Christmas.