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Valentine’s Day, before the shops stole it

I was asked to write a post about Valentine’s Day, by a friend who feels similarly to me, because we are both quite cynical about the day, and the novelty wore off for us after working together in retail.

I believe the day has turned more into an over-hyped commercialised event, causing people (mainly women who apparently globally buy 85% of Valentine’s Day cards!) to run around the shops in a sweaty, frothing mess.

I wanted to write a humorous post slagging off the commercialism, but I have decided to be a bit more positive about it. As a history graduate who remembers nothing I learnt as I was mostly drunk or asleep I decided to do a little bit of research on t’internet to find out the origins of the day.

“She bath’d with roses red, and violets blew

And all the sweetest flowres, that in the forrest grew”

1590, Edmund Spenser, from The Faerie Queene

So make yourself a brew, grab a heart-shaped over-priced chocolate and I will begin…

There seem to be two main origins of Saint Valentine’s Day, which have evolved over the years into the tradition we know today.

The earliest connection is with the Roman Festival of Lupercalia. The name is likely to been derived from the Latin Lupus meaning Wolf. Celebrated by the Romans between 13th to 15th February, the festival was dedicated to Fertility and Faunus, the Roman God of Agriculture as well as Romulous and Remus, the twins who were raised by a she-wolf in a cave where today’s city of Rome is located. Two young males would wear fresh animal skins and run through Rome slapping people with strips of goat skin. The goat skin represented Faunus. It was said that if a woman was slapped by the skin, she became fertile.

The festival was outlawed towards the end of the 5th Centrury A.D. by the Christian Church for being a pagan ritual and unchristian. A Christian Feast Day dedicated to a Saint Valentine was created and declared to be held on 14th February.

It has never been clarified which Saint Valentine the Feast day was dedicated too. There are three Valentines who were martyred and are all attributed to the Feast Days. But two legends are more popular than a third.

The first legend; Saint Valentine was a priest serving in a 3rd Century Roman army under Claudius II. Claudius decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and children. So legend has it that he banned marriage. Saint Valentine disagreed with this ruling and kept marrying young lovers in secret. Claudius discovered what he was doing, and had him put to death.

The second legend; Saint Valentine was imprisoned and killed for trying to help Christians escape harsh Roman prisons. Whilst he was imprisoned, he fell in love with the daughter of his jailor, Asterius. Valentine is supposed to have sent the girl a letter before his death which was ‘from your Valentine’. This is supposedly the first reference to the now common declaration in greetings cards.

The third and least known legend; Saint Valentine was killed in a Roman province of Africa for failing to renounce Christianity.

Fast forward to the 14th Century, and Geoffrey Chaucer, considered by many as the Great English poet of the middle ages, first referenced St Valentine’s day as being special for lovers, in his work called A Parliament of Fowls;

“For this was on seynt Volantynys Day, Whan every bryd comyth there to chese his make”

Translation: For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day, when every fowl comes there his mate to take

Saint Valentine’s Day was associated with the time of year that birds began mating, and also became more associated with romance, due to the rise in tradition of ‘courtly love’.

Courtly Love is a medieval European concept of noble and chivalric love. The story of the Knight rescuing the Princess from the Dragon, is the best way I can describe it.

Image from Wikipedia: God Speed! by Edmund Blair Leighton

The oldest surviving Valentine’s letter was written in 1415:

“Je suis desja d’amour tanné. Ma tres doulce Valentinée”

Translation: “I am already sick of love, My very gentle Valentine”

That is an excerpt from ‘A Farewell to Love’ written by Charles, Duke of Orleans to his wife Isabella of Valois.  This was written in the Tower of London, one of many places in England where he was held as Prisoner of War for 24 years, following the Battle of Agincourt. The manuscript is part of a collection held at the British Library.

Around the 17th century Valentine’s Day became regularly celebrated in Britain, and it was common to exchange handwritten notes  and tokens of affection by the end of the 18th Century. Developments with the printing press led to the manufacture of Valentine’s cards, and steady increase in use and evolution into the day we now celebrate in 2016.

A victorian Valentine’s Day card. Image from

I also looked into other origins of Valentine’s symbolism..

Amethyst is the birthstone of February. The stone is believed to attract love. It was often worn in a ring by Christian bishops.

Cupid is the God of desire and erotic love and is depicted in Roman mythology. Cupid is also known as Eros in Greek mythology. Cupido is Latin for Desire, Eros is Greek for Love. Cupid’s mother was Venus, Goddess of Love. Eros’s mother was Aphrodite. Cupid was originally depicted as slim, winged youth, but later evolved into the chubby young boy that is more commonly used in today’s illustrations. The arrows are meant to signify desire and love and Cupid/Eros uses the bow to aim these arrows at Gods and Humans alike.


Image courtesy of wikipedia


Hearts; I actually found this quite hard to find information on. The best I could find was that Saint Valentine may have given parchment hearts to soldiers to remind them of their marriage vows, during times when they were encouraged to take other women after winning battles. The use of the heart to illustrate love as an emotion became popular in the Middle Ages, coinciding roughly with the rise of ‘Courtly Love’.

Roses are Red, Violets are Blue. The earliest known reference is in the work I have quoted at the top of the post, by Sir Edmund Spenser in 1590. A nursery rhyme from 1784 is closer to the poem we are familiar with today:

“The Rose is Red, the violet’s blue,

The honey’s sweet, and so are you.

Thou are my love and I am thine;

I drew thee to my Valentine:

The lot was cast and then I drew,

and Fortune said it shou’d be you”


Image courtesy of Wikipedia

If you have made it to the end I send you a virtual mug of wine, overall I have found a lot of the history of the day is based just on legends and tradition, and there is very little fact to connect Saint Valentine to the day we are familiar with in 2016.

I find it easier to understand that our predecessors would celebrate a time of year based around the things they observed happening around them in nature, so I like the idea of Valentine’s Day being born from the beginning of spring, and animals finding new mates and love for the coming year.

We had a lovely walk around West Dean Gardens in West Sussex today, and everywhere there were signs of new life. Crocuses and Snowdrops in bloom, and Daffs on their way. And in one of the ponds, a pair of ducks were having a snooze. I hope we can go back later on in the season and see them with some ducklings!

Thanks for reading.

Keep Calm and Carry On Linking Sunday

I used the following websites for my research:

6 thoughts on “Valentine’s Day, before the shops stole it

  1. What s superb post. Thank you (i’m assuming i’m the friend?!) for putting the facts out there and allowing us to understand that there is an actual reason to this and its not about who can show a photo online of the best present received from their “valentine” I know someone who received a very well known, high end, scented candle….I leave you to work out where this fits in to the above meanings. Loving your work x

  2. Wow, I didn’t know any of this! From all the interesting info that you shared with us, I like that Valentine’s is the starting of spring! I can’t wait for the lighter days and spring flowers. Its also nice to know that some of its origins were writing handwritten notes. I think hand written notes and handmade gifts are so sweet and shows real love and effort.
    Thanks for an interesting post.
    Amanda. #kcacols

  3. What an interesting post!! It is always great to know more about the history behind this day than just thinking about what my hubby will buy me this year! LOL I didn’t know about this information but I also like the idea of Valentines day being born from the beginning of Spring although we will have some problems with the Easter Bunny now!! LOL I guess you will have to do now the story behind Easter!! haha Thanks so much for sharing this at #KCACOLS. I would love to see you again on Sunday! 🙂 x

Would love to read your thoughts!