Valentine’s Day Origins
Giving out cards anonymously, presenting loved ones with chocolates and sweets, romantic verse and, of course, the whole amorous nature of Valentine’s Day. We take it all for granted, don’t we? It seems to have been around forever… but has it? What are the actual Valentine’s Day Origins and its customs?
Graeco-Roman Beginnings of Valentine’s Day
Despite the popular association with Valentine’s Day of Cupid (son, of course, to the Greek/ Roman goddess of love, Aphrodite/ Venus), it seems the idea of it being a ‘holiday of love’ that dates all the way back to ancient times is actually foundless. Instead, ancient festivals held in February appear to have revolved around sacrifice. For instance, in Roman times, Lupercalia was observed on 13th-15th February and was specifically focused on fertility, while the Festival of Juno Februa (Juno the Purifier) took place on 13th-14th February.
Valentine’s Day origins do not begin this far back.
St. Valentine – who was he and what did he do?
Valentine’s Day takes its name from St. Valentine, a Christian figure from the Third Century AD; he was martyred in 269AD and beatified around 200 years later. Legend has it that Valentine was incarcerated for performing the forbidden weddings of soldiers and, during his time in jail, supposedly healed the daughter of the man whom was holding him – and before his execution wrote a note or letter of farewell to her signed ‘Your Valentine’. This supposedly then is the source for today’s Valentine’s cards, the exchanging of which, like many Valentine’s Day traditions, effectively began in the 17th Century.
The Chaucer connection
It’s believed that the first recorded association of Valentine’s Day with romance or amorous love dates from the 14th Century, thanks to the legendary English writer Geoffrey Chaucer. In one of his poems (translated from the English of the era) he wrote the lines:
‘For this on St. Valentine’s Day / When every bird cometh there to choose his mate’. Although composed to celebrate the first anniversary of the engagement of England’s King Richard II to Anne of Bohemia, the Valentine’s Day that Chaucer refers to wouldn’t have been on 14th February because the date of the engagement had been in early May.
Valentine’s Day Greetings cards
People nowadays do all sort of things with their loved ones to mark Valentine’s Day – perhaps you’ll be looking to get away this year, giving you the excuse to dress up in one of those stylish prom dresses or, if you’re looking to romantically explore the great outdoors, pack with you or purchase from Mr Shoes a pair of women’s Timberland boots? That said, some things never seem to change, like the custom of exchanging Valentine’s Day cards.
Believe it or not, Valentine’s greetings began via the printing press, featuring as they did verses and sketches, and were referred to as ‘mechanical valentines’. All that changed in the early 19th Century thanks to the Industrial Revolution, which saw these cards’ widespread assembly in factories. Some were created with lace and ribbons attached; indeed, so popular had the custom become that, by 1835, 60,000 cards were sent each year, despite the then high cost of postage.
Things changed dramatically again following the 1840 postal reforms, though, when the fist postage stamp (the Penny Black) was introduced. Suddenly, the number sent each year leapt up to 400,000, with the advantage now, of course, that Valentine’s cards could be sent to that special someone anonymously. Indeed, so popular did the practice become in Victorian times that the great Charles Dickens referred to it as ‘Cupid’s Manufactory’; he wasn’t exaggerating either as, by then, 3,000 women were employed in the manufacture of the cards.
Finally, where on earth does the giving out chocolates on Valentine’s Day come from? Well, believe it or not, it may originate from a regional custom in Norfolk, where the so-called ‘Jack’ Valentine is supposed to knock on a house’s back door and leave sweets, treats and presents for children. Oddly enough, to this day kids are supposed to be scared of the custom!