The History and the long traditions associated with Valentine’s Day
Every year, many of us observe the traditions associated with Valentine’s Day. But, do we really understand how and why these traditions came about and the meanings behind them? Steve Cain explains.
We are probably all aware that Valentine’s Day is named after St Valentine but not many of us know that there were, in actual fact, at least three Valentines that were sainted by the Catholic Church.
Each of the three has his own band of followers who believe the day is in celebration of him. The first St Valentine lived in Roman times and was somewhat rebellious. The Romans believed that single men were better soldiers, resulting in Emperor Claudius II issuing a decree prohibiting young men from marrying and conscripting them to the military instead. St Valentine defied this decree and continued to marry young lovers in secret.
St Valentine II assisted Christian prisoners in escaping from Roman jails until, eventually, he too was caught and imprisoned. During his incarceration, he is believed to have befriended his jailer, Asterious, who became so impressed with Valentine’s wisdom that he asked him to help his daughter, Julia with her lessons. The young girl was blind and required someone to read material aloud to her. The pair became firm friends.
Valentine II was offered a pardon on the condition that he renounced his Christian faith and worship the Roman gods instead. He refused and was sentenced to death. However, before he was killed, Valentine wrote a note to Julia, encouraging her to remain faithful to Jesus and to thank her for her friendship. He signed the note: “From your Valentine.”
It is believed that the note inspired people to begin writing their own messages of love on February 14, which had become known as Valentine’s Feast Day. The tradition continues now with the sending of Valentine’s cards. Valentine III is a bit of a mystery as not a lot is known about him. Apparently, he was a Catholic bishop in Terni. During the passage of time, elements associated with each of the three saints have become intertwined. In 1969, the Catholic Church removed the St Valentine’s feast day from the Christian liturgical calendar because the story had become so confused. The one thing all three Valentines are believed to have had in common, aside from their name, is that they were each martyred by beheading (by different Roman emperors) on February 14 in different years. However, historians have been unable to verify this rather fanciful coincidence.
In addition to being the patron saint of love and marriage, St Valentine is also the patron saint of beekeepers, fainting, and people with epilepsy.
Although Valentine’s cards may be the perfect way to express feelings of love, they have also been used for less positive purposes. In fact, the Victorians delighted in sending nasty, anonymous notes that criticised anyone ranging from unwanted suitors to acquaintances and family members with perceived shortcomings. These notes were appropriately nicknamed “vinegar valentines”. Nowadays, in addition to sending Valentine’s cards on St Valentine’s Day, we observe a number of other traditions. A bouquet of red roses is one of the most popular gifts – but why?
Well, red as a colour has long represented love, passion and romance because it symbolises the blood that is pumped through the heart. In Roman mythology, a red rose was given to Venus, the goddess of love to represent the blood of Adonis, the god of love. White roses are a metaphor for purity and innocence and pink roses combine purity with romance, hence some lovers tend to opt for bouquets that include all three colours.
In the United States, Conversation Hearts are a popular form of confectionery that are given as gifts on Valentine’s Day. These chalky heart shaped sweets originated in the late 1800’s when a Boston pharmacist who made lozenges was persuaded by his brother to print short messages on them. The idea took off and by 1910, they were a fixture of Valentine’s Day. Here, in the United Kingdom, we have our own version called Love Hearts.
Chocolates are another confection that are given as gifts on Valentine’s Day. Like many traditions this, too, has roots to ancient cultures and beliefs. The Aztecs believed that chocolate was an aphrodisiac, making it a popular gift to express love and devotion. This tradition was commercialised in the mid 1800’s when Cadbury produced a heart-shaped box of chocolates especially for Valentine’s Day. Unfortunately, the brand hadn’t patented the idea and the design was soon imitated by any chocolate-maker with a head for business.
During the Coronavirus pandemic, the prospect of a romantic dinner for two in a swanky restaurant was very definitely off the cards. Lockdown meant that Valentine’s Day 2021 looked very different to previous years. Pubs, restaurants and non-essential retailers were forced to close and people were ordered to stay at home. To compensate for the lack of wining and dining, suitors everywhere had to become more innovative with their choices of gifts. Consequently, sales of jewellery skyrocketed, rising in the ranking of most popular gifts from eleventh place all the way up to the number three spot.
Those that didn’t end up with something sparkly may have had to settle for something furry instead. Pets as presents became another popular choice!
Perhaps the most common symbol associated with Valentine’s Day is the heart. Long considered the centre of human emotion, over time we have attached many words associated with love and sincerity to the heart: heartbreak, heartfelt, heart-warming and heart-wrenching to name only a few.
However, the universal symbol of love that we see plastered over everything in early February bears no real resemblance to the anatomical organ. This may be due to a centuries-old misconception. When describing the human heart, Aristotle noted: “the heart has three cavities. The rounded end of the heart is at the top. The pointed end is largely fleshy and firm in texture.”
When following that description to draw a diagram, it is certainly feasible to end up with the symbol that adorns Valentine’s cards.
Although Valentine’s Day may be synonymous with love, it seems that not everyone loves the day of love. In a government survey of the most popular national and religious celebrations in the UK, Valentine’s Day didn’t even make the top ten. So, we may not be a nation of romantics after all.