We all know St. Valentine’s Day is a celebration of love where we exchange things such as flowers and chocolates as a sign of our affection. Valentine’s Day skeptics will be quick to tell you that this “day of love” is a corporate trick designed to make you spend your hard-earned money on meaningless trinkets for your partner. But the tradition of gift giving on February 14th is much older than our modern corporations, and some of the history of commonly exchanged Valentine’s Day gifts may surprise you.
You’re probably familiar with candy hearts—those chalky pastel-coloured sweets with messages of love inscribed on them. Although they’re an invention of the modern world, they’re still quite a bit older than you might expect. Candy hearts were first produced in Massachusetts in 1866, and they’ve been a popular gift for lovers ever since. Today they’re almost inseparable from Valentine’s Day celebrations, but for the first few decades of production, candy hearts were primarily eaten at weddings as a celebration of marital love. These days the hearts are almost exclusively a Valentine’s Day affair, and over eight billion of them are manufactured and sold each year. As old turns of phrase fall out of fashion they’re dropped from the roster, and new phrases are added to better represent our shifting language of love. Some companies will even allow you to order custom messages to put onto your hearts, just in case none of this year’s messages capture the depth of your feelings.
Love poetry is a classic way to earn points with your significant other on Valentine’s Day. The relationship between poetry and Valentine’s seems like obvious to us now, but it wasn’t always that way. The first recorded Valentine’s Day poem comes to us from Geoffrey Chaucer, the medieval poet responsible for works like Canterbury Tales. Before Chaucer, St. Valentine’s Day was just one of many feast days of the Catholic Church. Through his poetry, Chaucer created a lasting association between love and St. Valentine, and he’s largely responsible for the tradition of exchanging poems during this mid-February celebration.
These days, Valentine’s Day cards are more popular among school children than they are with adults, but things didn’t start out that way. According to legend, the first Valentine’s Day card was sent by St. Valentine himself, when he delivered a declaration of love through the bars of his prison cell. It was signed, “From your Valentine.” This story, while fun, is likely not true. What we do know, is that people have been sending love notes and letters almost since the invention of writing. As for the cards themselves, we probably have the French to thank for those. The earliest surviving Valentine’s Day card was sent by the Duke of Orleans to his wife in 1477.
The exchange of flowers began as an exercise in cryptography, that is, the coding of secret messages. In this secret form of communication, called “floriography”, each type of flower has a specific meaning attached to it, and so to those well-versed in the code, a mixed bouquet can serve the same function as a letter. Shakespeare famously explored this secret language in Hamlet. What some mistake as Ophelia’s ramblings about flowers is actually a coded message, where she expresses her true feelings for certain members of the court. Roses represent passion, of course, while hyacinths represent playfulness and a sprig of dill represents lust. Be careful when arranging your own bouquet, though, because some flowers, like lilies, are meant as insults rather than declarations of love.