10 Sweet Stories about the History of Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day is a day unlike any other that pops up in the calendar if you are lucky in love. Or perhaps even if you are unlucky in love and are unfairly reminded of your forever-single status. But we hope that’s not the case! We hope Valentine’s Day celebrations of the past and present have been good to you, and your spouse, or partner, or other loved one. They’ve certainly been good to many people.

Around the world, hundreds of millions of people celebrate Valentine’s Day with greeting cards, chocolate, flowers, little love notes, and other sweet gifts and trinkets meant for that special someone in their lives. But where does all this come from? Why do we do it like this? And how long has it been going on?

In this list, we’ll take a deep dive into the history and development of Valentine’s Day. From a pagan tradition that grew into a Christian-adjacent celebration, the day has been marked special on the calendars of a variety of cultures for several thousand years. In more recent times, of course, commercialization has come. And chocolate. Did we mention chocolate?! Yummy! Anyway, go grab a piece of candy or two and settle in for a long ride through the romantic realm of Valentine’s Day!

Related: 10 Real-Life, Romantic Love Stories from World War II

10 An Uncertain Pagan Origin

The origins of Valentine’s Day are, frankly, pretty hard to pin down. The day has been celebrated or at least acknowledged in one form or another for centuries and centuries. Many historians now believe that the day as we know it—or, at least, the foundation of what we have come to know it as—began as a Christian attempt to make a religious event out of a former pagan holiday and popular fertility festival called Lupercalia.

That festival occurred early in the spring every single year and turned out to be a great tradition. Some historians even acknowledge that the festival was a joint bash meant to celebrate and honor Faunus (the Roman god of agriculture) and Romulus and Remus (the founders of Rome itself).

Regardless, Lupercalia was always a big hit. And when the Christians slowly but surely swept into power during Rome’s reign, they pushed to Christianize the holiday festival and give it the fixed February 14 date to appeal to pagan believers—and help convince many of them to join up with the new Christian cause.[1]

9 Made after a Martyr

The reason St. Valentine’s Day is named as such is thanks to a Christian martyr who died while trying to protect love nearly 2,000 years ago. Valentine was the name of a clergyman—history identifies him sometimes as a priest and sometimes as a bishop—who was mad that the Roman emperor Claudius II banned marriage.

Claudius did so after his reign began in AD 268 because he believed that unmarried men made for better soldiers. While he may have had a point about the aggression single, unmarried men could take out on the battlefield, he didn’t exactly make many friends in the realm of Rome when it came time to enact that position. And one of the people who hated the marriage ban the most was Valentine.

Valentine believed that it was unfair to prevent people from finding partners and falling into love. So he decided to break Claudius’s rules and perform secret marriage ceremonies anyway for couples who sought the commitment. Eventually, Claudius figured out what was going on, and Valentine was executed for going against the Roman emperor’s very strict and clear decree.

The Catholic Church officially canonized Valentine as a saint thanks to his martyrdom. Today, Saint Valentine is buried on the Via Flaminia—the same place where he was laid to rest on the date of February 14, 270, the year after his death. And we all now celebrate Saint Valentine’s Day, which has also historically been called the Feast of Saint Valentine, after it really took hold as a tradition beginning in about the eighth century.[2]

8 But There Are More?

That story seems nice and simple, but it may not be the only one that influenced Valentine’s Day. As it turns out, there are actually multiple Saint Valentines floating out there in history. And their stories likely intertwined in bits and pieces to give us the Saint Valentine’s Day trajectory that we are familiar with today.

In addition to the Valentine, who was beheaded by Claudius II in 269 or 270, there were multiple other legends surrounding love. The Catholic Encyclopedia and other faith-based sources believe there are at least three former bishops, priests, or other individuals who have had stories of theirs tied up in the love-fest holiday.

Most notable was our aforementioned Roman priest killed by Claudius II. But also notable was a former bishop—officially, the Bishop of Interamna, which is the present-day city of Terni, Italy—who was martyred for backing love. He was also buried at Via Flaminia outside of Rome, just like the previously mentioned Valentine.

There was even a legend involving a supposed Patron Saint of Love named Valentine that popped up in the Middle Ages. According to lovely lore, Valentine was the patron saint of lovers—but also of beekeepers and epilepsy. It’s a weird combination, but one that crafted the holiday as we know it now.[3]

7 Chaucer’s Chance at Love

If you aren’t a fan of Valentine’s Day, then we have for you the perfect person to blame: Geoffrey Chaucer. Good luck sending him a nasty email or a snarky tweet about it, though, because he has been dead for hundreds of years. Chaucer was, of course, a very famous 14th-century English poet.

While he may have most famously written The Canterbury Tales, he is also the person most widely credited for turning Saint Valentine’s Day into a celebration of romantic love. Ever since his push, then, we have all followed with roses, chocolates, heart-shaped candy, and all the rest. Oh, those sweet, sappy, and long-standing traditions!

As we’ve learned so far, Valentine’s Day has a bit of a grisly history, what with the beheadings and the martyrdom and all. But in the 1380s, Chaucer wrote a poem called “The Parliament of Fowls.” In that work, he referenced February 14 as being a day that was about love. Even though it had long been a day of feast for Catholics to celebrate and honor the martyrdom of Saint Valentine, Chaucer wrote about it being more than that.

His declaration of Saint Valentine’s Day being meant for love was the first of its kind ever written down. While English people possibly practiced that already before Chaucer wrote of it, of course, he was likely inspired by their tradition. But regardless, his writing spurred it on for all the rest of us. Now, here we are nearly 700 years later, and Valentine’s Day is going strong![4]

6 History WAY Before Hallmark

The first-ever known Valentine’s Day card was (probably) sent from a prisoner in the infamous Tower of London to his wife. The year was 1415, and Charles, the Duke of Orléans, was just 21 years old. He was married by then—well, 21 was kind of a ripe old age in the early 15th century—and he was also imprisoned in the Tower of London.

The duke’s story deals with a whole lot of wild royal family in-fighting and imprisonment that gets way off the beaten path here. But suffice it to say for our purposes today that while he was imprisoned, he fired off a handwritten Valentine’s Day card to his waiting wife on the outside of those impenetrable tower walls.

Sadly, historians don’t still have access to the card Charles (reportedly) sent his wife way back in 1415. But they do have something nearly that old! The oldest-surviving Valentine’s Day card comes in the form of a handwritten letter that is currently held in the British Library. The letter was a Valentine’s Day stanza written by a woman named Margery Brews and meant for her fiance, John Paston.

That it still survives today is a testament to the power of paper and ink, we suppose. But also to Margery’s apparently undying love for John! If she ever told him, “I love you forever” during their lives six centuries ago, well, she sure was right about it![5]

5 It All Gets Commercialized

To be fair, it took quite a while from Chaucer and Margery Brews before Valentine’s Day really became a commercial endeavor. The business side of the love-locked holiday began in 18th-century England. There, people began to make (or buy) and send Valentine’s Day cards to their loved ones. Most often, the targets of these cards were romantic interests. Still, they could also be reserved for friends and beloved family members.

Card senders also often sent out chocolates and other confectionery items along with the cards. And the most well-to-do had flowers sent, as well. From English roots, then, the tradition of sending out cards and gifts spread to the United States in the 19th century, and from there, the business side went in full-bore.

Today, Valentine’s Day represents a massive market moment for the greeting card industry. According to Hallmark and other lovesick companies in that realm, nearly 150 million Valentine’s Day cards are exchanged annually. And, it should be noted, those hundreds of millions of cards are only the messages that get sent through the mail.

The companies don’t include the cards kids traditionally send to each other in school and things of that nature. By sheer volume, that makes Valentine’s Day the second-largest greeting card holiday in the world behind Christmas. That’s some serious mail movement and post office power![6]

4 Roses Are Red…

Even if you don’t know anything else about Valentine’s Day, and you’re forever destined to live a single life without love and affection (sad!), you probably at least know that red roses are very commonly associated with it. That connection goes back a long, long way through history, too. See, red roses first became associated with Valentine’s Day due to their link to Venus, who was the Roman goddess of love.

Also known as Aphrodite in Greek mythology, the story goes that Venus found her lover Adonis mortally wounded one day. Adonis, who was the male god of beauty, was dying. Horrified at the sight, Venus sat over the body, and her tears began to fall. Those tears mixed with Adonis’s blood, and the combination of the two liquids amalgamated into a blossoming red rose bush.

Combine the female goddess of love and the male god of beauty, and it’s no wonder their resulting mythological rose bush would carry down through the ages. But while roses are the most popular flower (by far) to give out and receive on Valentine’s Day, they aren’t the only arrangement on deck. In recent years especially, less traditional floral arrangements have been made more popular on Valentine’s Day.

Other popular spring blooms like tulips, orchards, and lilies are now routinely exchanged by those wishing to show their love and affection for another person. And while they aren’t as traditional as roses, the bright colors and unique arrangements of these other flowers can make for exceptionally compelling gifts in their own right.[7]

3 Strange Celebrations

Valentine’s Day, as we know it here in the United States, is celebrated similarly in many parts of the world. Still, not every nation on Earth carries out this same tradition. In fact, in several Asian countries, Valentine’s Day is done entirely differently. Take Japan, for example. In Tokyo and the rest of Japan’s cities, locals use Valentine’s Day as an opportunity for women to give chocolates to men. That tradition started in 1958 when a Japanese chocolate company urged women to make Valentine’s Day a time for women to tell the guys in their lives how they feel about them—with purchased chocolate, of course.

Be cynical about its corporate origins if you must, but the tradition stuck, and today, women in Japan give all kinds of chocolate to men on that holiday every year. It’s not even just their romantic partners, either. Japanese women hand out chocolate to their colleagues at work, their bosses, their male friends, and more to celebrate the big day.

Meanwhile, in South Korea, there is an entire day dedicated for men to receive gifts in response to Valentine’s Day. It comes one month after the February 14 holiday every year, and it is popularly known as “White Day” in Seoul and across South Korea. There, women turn the tables and give gifts to the men they love as a sort of “equal and opposite” response to the focus on female adoration in mid-February. The tables turn!

And then there’s China. While Valentine’s Day has caught on in parts of China and in ways that are somewhat comparable to the manner in which it is celebrated in the West, China has its own anti-Valentine’s Day, too. Every year on November 11, the Chinese people celebrate “Singles’ Day.”

That event is meant for unattached and unspoken-for individuals to spoil themselves. These single people treat themselves to all kinds of gifts and presents and revel in another year of, uh, not being in love. In turn, it has become one of the busiest shopping days of the year in China. Oh, and the chosen date is important, too. Think of it: November 11, as in 11/11. Lots of single digits there! Get it?[8]

2 A Craving for Chocolate

In 1861, chocolate magnate Richard Cadbury came up with the first idea for a chocolate box that was heart-shaped and was specifically promoted to be sold on Valentine’s Day. Cadbury (yes, of Cadbury chocolate fame) was a marketing genius, and the heart-shaped box of delicious and chewy morsels stuck around, well, forever! Cadbury is obviously still a thing today.

Chocolate has a very close, very symbiotic relationship with Valentine’s Day overall. After Cadbury came up with this marketing ploy at the very beginning of the Civil War, Valentine’s Day quickly began to flourish as a commercial holiday in the United States. People bought box after box of chocolate—both Cadbury’s brand and from many other sources—and now the commercial aspects of the holiday are as we know them today.

Speaking of the commercial aspects of Valentine’s Day, when specifically considering chocolate, the amount people buy and eat in that second week of February is truly stunning. According to industry measurements of chocolate sales in the week leading up to February 14, Americans buy about 58 million pounds (26 million kilograms) of chocolate ahead of each Valentine’s Day. That’s in just seven days!

Just like Halloween in the fall, Valentine’s Day has become a major cash cow for Hershey’s and other chocolate companies seeking to profit from the yearly tradition. And to the tune of 58 million pounds annually, they sure are profiting. What do we get out of the deal? Oh, right, a toothache and a few added pounds around our waists![9]

1 Popping the Question!

Because Valentine’s Day is a romantic holiday centered on love and relationships, it naturally makes sense that it is a popular day on which many couples get engaged. And that number is in the millions every year—six million, in fact!

According to surveys, roughly six million couples get engaged to each other every single Valentine’s Day. And the day is broadly popular as the perfect time for a man to show love to the woman with whom he wants to commit. Surveys carried out consistently show that both men and women pick Valentine’s Day as the best day of the year to get engaged. Lovely!

In addition to engagements, Valentine’s Day is also a very popular time for love locks. If you’ve ever walked by a chain link fence in a high-end tourist section of a major urban center, you’ve probably seen at least a few of these. They are popular along the Seine River in Paris, where couples take to the bridges and lock a padlock onto a fence. Then, they often write their initials on the lock in Sharpie or some other marker. Now, many other couples have adopted the love-lock trend in cities around the world.

The lock is meant to commemorate the forever nature of their love. Since nobody who comes by the lock has the key, theoretically, their love will last as long as the lock does on that fence. The ritual has been around for a while now, with couples often throwing their keys into the river to ensure the padlocks can never be popped open.[10]

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