The History of Valentine’s Day

“Cupid pull back your bow and let your arrow go. Straight to my lover’s heart for me.” Sam Cooke sang about Cupid in 1961, but Valentine’s Day goes back many centuries before his song became an international hit.

Who was St. Valentine and what made him the patron saint of Victoria’s Secret and Govdiva chocolate?

According to the Catholic Church, there were three different St. Valentine’s. Which one was the real one is a mystery to this day, but there is an accepted legend about the man who inspired arrows being shot at so many people over the centuries.

During the Third Century M.E., Claudius II, Emperor of the Roman Empire, forbade all marriages as he was short of troops and single men were better suited for the Army than married ones. Valentine was a Catholic priest who defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages in secret. Once the Emperor found out about the ceremonies, Valentine was sentenced to death. While awaiting execution, Valentine fell in love with the jailer’s blind daughter. Before his execution, he sent a love letter to the daughter and signed it “From Your Valentine.” How romantic! I wonder if this is where they saying “Love is Blind” originated.

Around the same time, the Romans had a holiday called Lupercalia. This celebration, considered a male rite of passage, was dedicated to Juno Februata who was the Goddess of Feverish Love. Each February 14th, women would write their names on ballots that were then picked by that year’s crop of eligible young men. After pairing up, the couples would then feast and engage in what they referred to as game playing and which obviously involved sex.

Early Christian elders, who were a bit more conservative than the wild and crazy Romans, decided Lupercalia was a Pagan holiday they wanted to adopt, but it needed some refinement. They began celebrating the holiday as a feast to celebrate romance instead of sex. The Catholics needed a replacement for Juno Februata. Valentine, who had defended love and marriage and had been made a saint, became the Christians’ Champion of Love. Even though he had been celibate and knew absolutely nothing about wooing women, Valentine became the church’s poster child for romance. No big deal. He had already been dead for two centuries, so there was no one to dispute his reputation in spite of the fact he was totally unschooled in the Philosophy of Love. However, he did make for good Catholic P.R.

This had no effect, however, on the Romans. Single and married Roman men and women continued the practice of choosing ballots and exchanging “love tokens.” One wonders how often love tokens became love children.

The mid-February ceremonies actually lasted until the Middle Ages. Names were still chosen and presents were still required. Sometime during this period, the rules of the game changed drastically. It was decided that only men would be required to give presents. Women did not have to return the favor. The men were not happy with the new requirement that they had to give a gift to a randomly picked woman and get nothing in return. So the rules were changed again. The updated rules stated a man only had to give a gift to a woman that he loved or wanted to impress. The custom of choosing a Valentine’s Day partner by blind ballot finally disappeared.

The first Valentine’s Day cards appeared in the late 1700’s. By the early 1800’s, Valentine cards had become the most popular exchange for the holiday.

Today, Valentine’s Day is celebrated around the world. In the U.S., the tradition is the giving of flowers, normally roses, and candy, which helps keep chocolate companies and dentists in business. The way Valentine’s Day is celebrated in other countries, however, can be very different than in the U.S.:

In France, legend has it that Charles, Duke of Orleans, sent the first Valentine’s Day card to his wife who, at the time, was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Another French tradition held that men and women would face off in two large groups. Both sexes would start to call out the names of men or women in a loterie d’amour or love lottery. If the man didn’t like the woman with whom he was paired, he could simply walk away and choose another. At the end of the day, the women who had not been chosen would attend a bonfire where they burnt pictures of men who wronged them and in general made it a night of male disparagement. Eventually, it got so out of control that the French government – all men, of course – outlawed the celebration.

The custom in South Korea on February 14th is for women to give candy and flowers to the men of their choosing. The men reciprocate on March 14th, known as White Day, by giving women candy, flowers, and a gift. April 14th, however, is Black Day. On this day, single people gather to mourn their singleness and eat bowls of black bean paste noodles.

The Welsh don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day, but, in Wales, they do have a holiday called St. Dwynwen’s Day. In the 1600’s, Welsh men starting carving intricately designed wooden spoons to give to the loves of their lives. Every spoon had a different pattern and each design its own unique significance. A horseshoe meant good luck. A wheel stood for support and a key symbolized the way to a man’s heart. Today, the tradition of giving spoons has grown to include weddings, births, and anniversary celebrations.

In the Philippines, celebrations are not all that different from other countries – candy, flowers, and gifts are the most popular way to celebrate. The Filipinos have also developed a tradition that has become a major trend in their country: mass weddings. Every year on February 14th, hundreds of couples gather in malls, parks, churches, and other public venues to participate in mass weddings. They may be getting married for the first time or may just want to renew their vows. In 2012, over 2000 couples were involved in mass weddings.

Denmark started celebrating Valentine’s Day only in the early 90’s. Instead of roses, however, the Danes present each other with pressed white flowers they call “snowdrops.” Valentine’s Day cards are called Lover’s Cards. Danish men also give women cards called Gaekkebrev which translates to joking letter. This is an unsigned note containing a funny joke or poem. If the woman correctly guesses the sender, she qualifies to receive an Easter egg later in the year. Cheaper than a diamond, I guess.

How does Italy, the country where Valentine’s Day was first inspired, celebrate the holiday these days? Originally, it was touted as the Spring Festival Day with couples spending the day together, attending concerts and poetry readings. Another of the Italian traditions calls for a young, unmarried woman to wake up early and look out her window. It is purported that the first male she sees would be her husband within a year. Or, he would at least look like the guy. Because of this tradition, Valentine’s Day, for young single men in Italy, became “Hide in Mama’s house all day and don’t go outside for fear of being chosen” Day. Like people in most other countries that celebrate the holiday, Italians, for the most part, exchange gifts and have romantic dinners. They also give each other Baci Perugina, chocolate covered hazelnuts wrapped in paper with romantic quotes.

Today, we owe one of mankind’s most romantic and expensive holidays to a celibate, religious hardliner who defied the establishment in the name of love.

And what about Cupid? Who was he and how did he get involved in Valentine’s Day? Cupid was the son of Venus, the Roman goddess of love which made him the perfect mascot for a day of feverish, sexual Olympics. He was said to carry two types of arrows – the Golden Arrow and the Leaden Arrow. The Golden Arrow represented true love. The Leaden Arrow represented lust and wanton passion also known as closing time at the local taverna.

If St. Valentine was around today, he’d probably be demanding royalties from DeBeers Diamonds and the Whitman Chocolate company. After all, if it wasn’t for him, there would be one less reason to believe that diamonds are forever.