Happy Valentine’s Day. Today will be a day of roses, chocolates, date-nights, popping “the big question”, and more for millions of Americans. A couple of years ago, the National Retail Federation estimated that Americans would spend about $20 billion on their Valentine’s Day festivities. Where did this big day come from?
The origins are clouded in mystery and conflicting histories. We know that February has long been associated with romance in many Christian and Roman traditions, but who really was St Valentine and how did he get so closely associated with the business of love?
There are several different saints recognized by the Catholic Church called Valentine or similar. However, one version of the story of St. Valentine that I like is about a Roman priest of that name from the 3rd Century. Emperor Claudius II, the first of Rome’s tough “soldier emperors” of the 3rd century, decided that men made better soldiers without wives and families, so he outlawed marriage for young men of fighting age. Apparently, Valentine defied this order and continued to marry couples in secret, holding marriage to be an important Christian ritual. For his deceit, the priest was executed on February 14th, 269 AD. Legend has it that while he was imprisoned and awaiting execution, he fell in love with his jailer’s daughter, who was blind. He apparently restored her sight – a miracle – and signed his last letter to her before his death, “From your Valentine.” Over two hundred years later, the pope declared February 14 as a saint’s day. I am sure old St. Valentine could not have envisaged the frenzy of romantic gestures we see on this date every year.
Looking back at history, as I like to do, we need to remember that for thousands of years, the middle of February has been a time for fertility festival celebrations, such as Lupercalia, an ancient Roman festival that was held February 13-15. The festival promoted fertility, although it also had some other rather gruesome rituals focused on purging cities of evil and illness.
On to the more pleasant side of Valentine’s Day, flowers have symbolized fertility, love, marriage, and romance for centuries so are now a vital part of the festivities. My lovely husband often sends me red roses, the traditional flower which symbolizes romantic love. The history of giving your loved one Valentine’s Day flowers comes from the old-fashioned custom of sending floral bouquets to pass on non-verbal messages. Introduced in the 18th century by Charles VIII of Sweden and Norway, each flower had a specific meaning attached to it, making it possible to have an entire conversation using only flowers.
Other contemporary gifts for Valentine’s Day include chocolates and candy – often in heart shaped boxes. Chocolate symbolizes deep love, passion, luxury and some scientists believe it is an aphrodisiac; it certainly does release endorphins in the brain. In South Korea, women give men chocolate on Valentine’s Day, so men return the favor on March 14, which is known as White Day. There are similar traditions in China and Japan.
I thought it would be fun to look at a few other romantic traditions and important dates for lovers around the world:
- I will start with Wales. January 25 marks the Welsh celebration for St. Dwynwen, considered the patron saint of lovers. I also like the traditional Welsh love spoons which were originally made by young men during the long winter nights or by young men on long sea voyages. They were carved from wood to express a young man’s intentions towards a particular girl incorporating many meaningful symbols.
- Moving to Central Europe, Slovenia celebrates St Gregory’s Day on March 12 to celebrate the start of spring and love. Heart-shaped honey cookies are given to loved ones and bird images are popular as the Slovenians have a saying “birds get married on St Gregory’s Day”. Staying in this part of Europe, Romanians celebrate their Valentine’s Day on February 24 on “Dragobete”. This pagan festival began as a celebration of spring, and Romanian folk lore states that many centuries ago boys and girls would spend the day in the woods gathering flowers, and then the girls would run home at sunset. Boys would chase the girl they liked, and simply catching and kissing her would announce their engagement to the village.
- In South America, Brazilians celebrate Lover’s Day or “Dia dos Namorados” in a similar way to how we observe Valentine’s Day. However, they do this on June 12 since it falls on the eve of St. Anthony’s Day—he’s the patron saint of marriage. A more cynical view is that February is carnival season, which takes priority.
- Finally, in the Far East, people in Hong Kong, celebrate their Lantern Festival on the 15th day of the lunar calendar, falling this year on February 19. While its origins are disputed, most believe that matchmaking was once an important aspect of this festival since single people were among those who carried lit lanterns through the streets at night. Today, the Lantern Festival is largely embraced as a day of love: In fact, one of the traditions is for couples to visit a temple and pray to “Yue Lao,” the mythological god of marriage and love.
I will leave you with a quote from Charles M. Schulz, twentieth century American cartoonist and creator of the comic strip Peanuts: “All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.”
Happy Valentine’s Day and God bless America!
– ENDS –