Valentine’s Day can sometimes seem like an invention of the modern world, designed to sell greeting cards and jewellery. But the traditions associated with Valentine’s Day actually stretch back thousands of years, almost to the beginning of Western civilization. In fact, this annual celebration of love is one of the oldest holidays still practiced today. So, if you choose to celebrate this year, know that you’re carrying on a tradition that’s almost as old as our culture itself. If you’re not, you might enjoy thinking of it as an act of rebellion, 2,500 years in the making.
Like many of our Western traditions, modern Valentine’s Day can be traced back to ancient Rome. Every year, from February 13th to 15th, Romans would celebrate the festival of Lupercalia. This three-day period was a fertility festival, where Romans would make sacrifices to their gods in exchange for fertility in their crops, in their livestock and yes, even in their friends and neighbours. Romance was not a high priority in ancient Rome.
Procreation was valued to a much higher degree. More children meant more soldiers and more hands to expand the empire.
One early ritual involved priests using the blood-soaked furs of sacrificial animals to hit (gently or not so gently, depending on the source) the young women of Rome, an act that was said to bless them, making them more fertile and more desirable in the year to come. There are also accounts of a matchmaking ritual, where young men and women would be paired off for the duration of the festivities. While not always successful, it was hoped that these matches would ultimately end in happy marriages that would produce many children.
If the idea of being coated in blood and sent on blind dates makes you a bit uncomfortable, you’re not alone. In the 490s, Pope Gelasius I put a stop to the pagan ritual of Lupercalia, as the sexual nature of the festival was not in keeping with the beliefs of the church. He banned the celebration and encouraged the people of Rome to spend February 14th celebrating the feast day of St. Valentine instead. While this put a stop to many of the more extreme rituals, the feast of St. Valentine never lost its association with love, though the context of this love would change as time went on.
The feast of St. Valentine remained popular throughout the middle ages, although the intent behind the holiday had shifted. Instead of a focus on fertility, the day began to celebrate the idea of romantic love. It became tradition for the literate members of the upper class to send notes and letters to their lovers, proclaiming their devotion.
Writers of the day, like Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare, referred to St. Valentine’s Day in their work as a celebration of love, and much of what we remember about courtship rituals comes from their work. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia delivers flowers to members of the court. It may seem like an innocent act to us, but to Elizabethans, each flower was filled with meaning. Roses, for example, represented passion, while hyacinths were code for playfulness. This secret language of flowers (called floriography) became popular among young lovers, and while we no longer use floral arrangements as code, the tradition of giving bouquets as tokens of affection stays with us today.
As literacy improved and printing became less expensive, handcrafted Valentine’s Day cards fell out of fashion and were replaced by the pre-printed cards we use today. The colonization of the Americas brought Valentine’s Day to the European colonies, but also brought chocolate back to Europe, where the luxury good quickly became the romantic gift of choice. The first heart-shaped box of chocolates was sold by Cadbury in 1861.
In the 1900s, people began to send gifts not only to lovers but also to friends and relatives as a sign of affection. This tradition can still
be seen today, as schoolchildren exchange Valentine’s Day cards with their classmates. t8n
The oldest Valentine card that still survives was written in 1415. It was penned by the Duke of Orléans while he was being held in the Tower of London as a prisoner of war. The card was meant for his wife and was addressed to “My very gentle Valentine.”
There were two legends of St. Valentine in the Catholic Church. One was a prisoner who was said to have fallen in love with his jailor’s daughter, sending her letters signed, “From your Valentine.” The other was a priest who would marry young lovers in secret during a time when marriage was banned for Roman soldiers.