Valentine’s Day – how did it all start?

Have you ever wondered where the tradition of giving Valentine’s Day gifts to a loved one came from?

Valentine’s Day is a time to celebrate romance and love, and truth be told it maybe a bit too commercial nowadays. But the origins of this festival are actually dark, bloody and a bit muddled and vague, and a mixture of pagan ritual and Christian tradition, rather like Christmas.

The ancient Romans may be responsible for the name of our modern day of love. Emperor Claudius II executed two men,  both named Valentine, on February 14th of different years in the 3rd century A.D. Their martyrdom was honoured by the Catholic Church with the celebration of St. Valentine’s Day.

It’s said that Valentine was a priest who served during the 3rd century in Rome, And when emperor Claudius II announced that single men made better soldiers than those with families and wives, he outlawed marriage for young soldiers. Valentine went against this injustice being done to young men and started performing secret marriages for young lovers. When the emperor found out about Valentine’s actions, he ordered that the saint be put to death, on February 14 in the year 270. The other tale suggests that the saint may have been killed while helping the Christians escape harsh Roman prisons, where they were tortured.

Gradually, St Valentine became so popular that couples all across the world started celebrating Valentine’s Day as the day of love. Although still no mention of gifts of jewellery and choccies!

No one has pinpointed the exact origin of this day, however the ancient Romans are again a good place to start.

It is linked to the pagan festival of Lupercalia, which was celebrated on February 15 by young Romans centuries before Christ. The celebration was held in honour of the goddess Februata Juno, and concerned all young people of marriageable age. The names or tokens representing all the young girls in the district were placed in a love urn and the young lads each drew a token and the couples paired off for the duration of the festival, or longer if the match was right. This was a kind of mating lottery game. During the Roman occupation of Britain, the idea was brought to this country and adopted by the ancient Britons. When people were converted to Christianity the pagan and Christian festivals were merged; the festival of Lupercalia was put back a day and celebrated on St. Valentine’s day, February 14.

Later, Pope Gelasius I muddled things in the 5th century by combining St. Valentine’s Day with Lupercalia to expel the pagan rituals. But the festival was more of a theatrical interpretation of what it had once been. It was a little more than a drunken revel, but the Christians put clothes back on it. That didn’t stop it from being a day of fertility and love.

As the years went on, the holiday grew sweeter. Chaucer and Shakespeare romanticized it in their work, and it gained popularity throughout Britain and the rest of Europe. Handmade paper cards became the tokens-du-jour in the Middle Ages.

It is believed that the first ever Valentine’s Day card was originated in France when Charles, the Duke of Orleans, sent love letters to his wife from the prison in 1415. And the French village called “Valentine” turns into the epicentre of romance between 12th and 14th February. One can see the beautiful yards, trees, and homes decorated with love cards, roses, and proposals for marriage flake. It probably is the most beautiful Valentine’s Day traditions in the world.

Eventually, the tradition made its way to the New World. The industrial revolution ushered in factory-made cards in the 19th century. And in 1913, Hallmark Cards of Kansas City, Mo., began mass producing valentines. February has not been the same since.

Did you know that the English were the inventors of the heart-shaped chocolate box? In the 19th century, John Cadbury, Britain’s oldest and most famous chocolate manufacturer, wanted to boost chocolate sales between Christmas and Easter. So he invented a heart-shaped choccy box. It soon became a hit, and has since been copied by chocolatiers everywhere.

Today in Italy, people gift each other Baci Perugina, a chocolate-covered hazelnut wrapped in a romantic quote. Now these are my all time favourite choccies and should not just be for Valentine’s Gifts in my humble opinion.

There are many other traditions and superstitions associated with romance activities on Valentine’s day including:

  • the first man an unmarried woman saw on 14th February would be her future husband;
  • if the names of all a girl’s suitors were written on paper and wrapped in clay and the clay put into water, the piece that rose to the surface first would contain the name of her husband-to-be.
  • if a woman saw a robin flying overhead on Valentine’s Day, it meant she would marry a sailor. If she saw a sparrow, she would marry a poor man and be very happy. If she saw a goldfinch, she would marry a rich person.
  • In the Middle Ages, young men and women drew names from a bowl to see who their valentines would be. They would wear these names on their sleeves for one week.
  • In Wales wooden love spoons were carved and given as gifts on February 14th. Hearts, keys and keyholes were favourite decorations on the spoons. The decoration meant, “You unlock my heart!”

And so the celebration of Valentine’s Day goes on, in many varied ways. Many will break the bank buying jewellery and flowers for their loved one. A few may still be spending this day like the ancient Romans, but lets draw a polite veil over that! No matter how big or small your romantic gesture is I hope it is from your heart and is appreciated x

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