A Short History Of Valentine's Day

Amid the celebrations of love, romance, and chocolate, a lot of the talk surrounding Valentine's Day focuses on the perception that it's a "corporate holiday" invented by brands in order to sell more cards, jewelry, and, yes, chocolate. Indeed, according to the National Retail Foundation, in 2020, Americans expected to spend a hefty average of $196.31, a 21 percent over 2019's average of $161.96. And total Valentine's Day spending in the United States was expected to top $27.4 billion, up from 2019's record $20.7 billion. Is any part of Valentine's Day's history authentically romantic? 

Per History, the holiday's history and its patron saint are "shrouded in mystery," particularly since there are three different martyred saints named Valentine or Valentinus. According to one legend, Valentine was a third century Roman priest who secretly married couples after Emperor Claudius II outlawed marriage for young men, because he thought single men made better soldiers. Another legend suggests that Valentine was killed for helping Christians escape Roman prisons and sent the first "valentine" to a woman who visited him while he was imprisoned, signing it "from your Valentine," a phrase that's still found on valentine cards to this day. Regardless of the origin stories, they all set Valentine up as a heroic, romantic figure, and by the Middle Ages, Valentine was one of the most beloved saints of both England and France.

From goat's blood to poetry

History goes on to note that Valentine's Day falls in the month of February possibly because of the Christian church's attempt to "Christianize" a pagan fertility festival called Lupercalia, which was celebrated during the ides of February, or February 15. This involved Roman priests, known as the Luperci, gathering at a sacred cave to sacrifice a goat, to encourage fertility, and a dog, for purification purposes. The priests would then take to the streets holding strips of goat flesh dipped in sacrificial blood and gently slap both women and fields with the goat hide to encourage fertility. The day supposedly ended with women putting their names in an urn, at which point Rome's single men would choose a name from the urn and the couple would then spend the next year together, often marrying at the end.

Lupercalia was later outlawed near the end of the fifth century, at which point Pope Galasius declared February 14 to be St. Valentine's Day. The day's romantic connotations didn't begin until much later, perhaps connected to the belief from the Middle Ages that birds' mating season begins on February 14. The first mention of Valentine's Day as a day celebrating romantic love is thought to have come from Geoffrey Chaucer in 1375 with a line from the poem "Parliament of Foules": "For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne's day / Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate." Written valentine greetings appeared in the 15th century. 

The oldest valentine is very, very old

The oldest valentine that still exists today a is poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife during his imprisonment in the Tower of London. The note resides in the British Library in London. By the middle of the 18th century, it was a common practice for friends and lovers to "exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes," per History, with printed cards commonly replacing letters by 1900. In the United States, Esther A. Howland is thought to have popularized the ornate and elaborate creations we associate with valentines when she started making and selling such cards in the 1840s. 

Today, Valentine's Day is the second-largest card-sending holiday, after Christmas. Per Hallmark, about 145 million Valentine's Day cards are exchanged throughout the world, and that doesn't count the little cards children traditionally give each other in classrooms via shoebox and construction paper "mailboxes."

Hallmark first offered valentine cards in 1913 and began producing them in 1916, making the slightly cynical phrase "Hallmark holiday" simplistic when it comes to considering the long history behind Valentine's Day, but not entirely inaccurate when one considers how much money the company stands to make on a day when there are 145 million cards to be sold.