Valentine’s Day

Today is Valentine’s day (a high point for florists and card sellers everywhere) so here’s a bit about the history of the day of love……

The earliest references I could find date back to ancient Rome where 13-15th February were celebrated as a pagan fertility festival called Lupercalia. This seems to be the origin for the celebration of love however traditions then  were somewhat different with historical reports of young men stripped naked, sacrificing goats or dogs, then using the hides of the animals they had just slain to whip young women in order to improve their fertility – rather odd!

Then there are a lot of references to martyrs…..

  • Valentine of Terni, a Christian priest was martyred in the reign of Emperor Aurelian. Not much is known about him but he was apparently imprisoned, tortured and beheaded on the Via Flaminia in Rome for his Christianity by the order of a Roman prefect with the oxymoronic name of Placid Furius. According to legend, he died on 14 February, but whether this is true is questionable.
  • Another Christian, Valentine of Rome, was also martyred. He was a priest apparently arrested for giving aid to prisoners. According to legend, during his imprisonment, he healed the daughter of his jailer and before his execution, wrote her a letter signed “Your Valentine” as a farewell.

St Valentine

Pope, Gelasius I, then declared 14 February as a Christian feast day named St Valentine’s Day.  This is believed to be a move to expel pagan rituals as many celebrated the popular pagan festival of Lupercalia so it gave the population another reason to celebrate – if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em

Then references seem a bit thin until 1382 when Chaucer wrote Parlement of Foules (or “Parliament of Fowls”).  I’m not a huge fan of Chaucer so can’t claim to have read this particular text but apparently it links St Valentine’s Day to romantic love. Celebrating the engagement of Richard II of England and Anne of Bohemia, he wrote: “For this was on St. Valentine’s Day/ When every fowl cometh there to choose his mate.” However, it is thought that this may have referred to 2 May, the saint’s day in the liturgical calendar of Valentine of Genoa as this would be a more likely time for birds to be mating in England.


Next reference comes 18 years later in 1400 when a court in Paris was opened on 14th February, referred to as the High Court of Love, it dealt with affairs of the heart: marriage contracts, divorces, infidelity, and beaten spouses.  Fifteen years later the Duke of Orleans wrote the first recorded Valentine’s note to his beloved, while imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.

Duke of Orleans

In 1601 Shakespeare mentioned St Valentine’s Day in Ophelia’s lament in Hamlet: “To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,/All in the morning betime,/And I a maid at your window,/To be your Valentine.” And the celebration entered popular culture.


Speeding forward a hundred years in the mid-18th century it seems that passing love-notes became popular in England, a precursor to today’s St Valentine’s Day cards. These notes were made of lace and paper and in 1797, The Young Man’s Valentine Writer is published, which gave suggestions for appropriate rhymes and messages.  By the early 19th century, with more affordable postal services the sending of valentines cards become so popular that factories start to mass-produce them.

Fast forward even further and in 1929 we have the St Valentine’s Day Massacre. A bloody event that took place in Chicago where five gangsters were lined up and murdered with machine guns, apparently on the orders of Al Capone.

St. Valentine's Day Massacre victims

Despite its at times gruesome history the tradition of sending cards, flowers, chocolates and gifts continued and now its estimated that over 1 billion cards are sent making it the second most card-heavy celebration after Christmas.

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