Red roses, chocolates, a slap-up meal, fabulous jewelry. No, we’re not listing the contents of Mariah Carey’s dressing room. We are, of course, describing the perfect Valentine’s Day for many. You see, February 14 has become synonymous with love, relationships and, these days, spending a huge amount of cash. But all that lovey-dovey stuff has its origins in something far more sinister.
Now, modern Valentine’s Day celebrations take many forms. From flowers and chocolates to jewelry and mini-breaks, cards and a gorgeous meal, there is an enormous number of ways to show your loved one you care. And, it seems, millions of us take part in the festivities every year, spending obscene amounts of money in the process.
So clearly, the commercial sector does very well out of Valentine’s Day. Over a billion cards are sent all over the planet to celebrate. But it’s not just postal missives that we’re splashing out on. In 2011 some $18.6 billion was spent globally on the holiday, with men spending almost twice as much as women. And the astonishing stats don’t end there.
No, because of that enormous amount of money, about $1 billion was spent on candy alone. And three-fourths of it went on chocolate, a Valentine’s Day staple. In addition to indulgent cocoa-based treats, candy hearts weighing in totality over 100,000 pounds were bought for the big day. So what about the rest of that $18 billion?
Well, apparently a third of those celebrating went to a show or restaurant on Valentine’s Day, equating to around $6 billion. And more than $4 billion went on jewelry such as necklaces, and we’re sure, a few engagement rings. As for the most traditional of gifts, flowers, almost $2 billion was spent. Well, they’re just not that expensive are they.
Therefore, as far as modern Valentine’s Day celebrations go, things haven’t really changed for a couple of centuries. But while in contemporary times February 14 is associated with love and relationships, that wasn’t always the way. You see, while it’s been recognized for hundreds of years, most of its history certainly hasn’t been that happy. Quite the opposite in fact.
Even during the Middle Ages, the notion of romantic love was still pretty new. And given the horrific origin story of the holiday, it’s not hard to see why it took a while to get going. So to discover what happened on the first-ever Valentine’s Day, we have to go back to the days of the Roman Empire.
That’s right, because before the Roman Empire became Christian practising the faith was actually illegal. And legend has it that one minister in particular flouted the ban and was executed for his crimes. What had he done? Well, he performed faith-based marriage ceremonies. However, there’s also another theory about the reason for St. Valentine’s execution.
Yes, the theory goes that the man who would become St. Valentine was brutally executed for a different, but equally important reason. Apparently, during the third-century reign of Claudius II, the emperor banned soldiers from getting married. You see, it seems the leader believed that single men made better fighters. As a result, anyone caught marrying members of the military would face the death penalty.
So, around 269 A.D., when caught performing ceremonies, the Roman priest was sentenced to death. But it certainly wouldn’t be a quick end for Valentine. And that’s because this execution took place in three stages. Firstly, the Christian minister was brutally beaten for his wedding-related crimes.
Secondly, Valentine suffered another excruciating punishment. You see, the Christian minister, having already endured a brutal beating, was then stoned. For those unfamiliar with this practise, it’s exactly as horrendous as it sounds. A group of people throw rocks at the convicted, usually until they die from blunt force trauma. That, though, wasn’t the end for the Roman priest.
For in the final phase of Valentine’s martyrdom, his battered and bruised body was beheaded. Now definitely dead (at least we hope for his own sake) this Christian minister was about to become a very famous saint. And the story of how he was canonized may well surprise you. Not least because it explains a tradition that we all recognize.
Legend has it that prior to Valentine’s execution, he had been corresponding with someone special. Whether friend or girlfriend, the female recipient of the Roman priest’s letters was blind. Some say she was actually the daughter of a judge or even Valentine’s jailer’s daughter. Either way, he always signed those messages, “From your Valentine.” Hence, the birth of the very first Valentine’s Day tradition. But that’s not how you earn sainthood.
Yes, no matter how many traditions you kick-start post-death, the standards for sainthood are more rigorous. And, in this instance, the miracle Valentine performed in death was that he restored the blind woman’s sight. Sainthood complete. But that’s not why we celebrate his feast day in February. You see, the 14th of that month in fact marks the martyr’s execution day. But there is one more reason the festivities fall in February.
Before St. Valentine’s execution and subsequent infamy, the Romans took a very different approach to mid-February. But first, a little background. For much of the empire’s history, it was a polytheistic culture, meaning they worshiped multiple gods. And many of the ways they practised their faith was through rituals. Some of which were incredibly bloody.
Taken collectively, these rituals were known as sacrificium, meaning “a sacrifice.” Of course, different gods had different requirements when it came to worship, but it generally involved the slaughter of an animal. And the events could be public or private, serving such purposes as prayer or contacting the dead. In the case of Rome in mid-February, though, things took an even stranger form.
Yes, it seems the citizens of the empire’s capital city enjoyed some decidedly pagan rituals. And around the time that St. Valentine was illegally marrying couples, Rome took part in a bizarre festival between February 13 and 15 every year. And it involved a lot of blood.
Indeed, this particular festival was known as Lupercalia, and even for pagans it was incredibly bizarre. Centred on the wolf-god worshiping Luperci fraternity, every February the all-male members would sacrifice a goat followed by a dog. And we haven’t even got to the weird bit yet.
You see, once the animals had been sacrificed, their skin was removed and cut into pieces. So far, so Roman. Then, though, the Luperci would strip naked themselves and run around the city’s boundary. And we still haven’t got to the weird part yet. Carrying the pieces of hide along with them, the nude men next did something utterly odd.
So strange was the Lupercis’ behaviour that Greek writer Plutarch was moved to describe it in his biography of Julius Caesar. And the young men would, he wrote, “strike those they meet with shaggy thongs.” But the wolf-worshipers, it seems, had a purpose outside of mindless violence.
According to Plutarch, “Women of rank also purposefully get in [the Lupercis’] way.” So why would well-to-do ladies partake in such a thing to intentionally get struck by animal skin? Well, in his book, the great author wrote, “They believed that the pregnant will thus be helped in delivery and the barren to pregnancy.” Yes, as incredible as it sounds, the Lupercalia was a fertility ritual.
Whether or not anyone’s fertility was ever affected by being struck with some animal skin remains unclear. What we do know is that Lupercalia was a popular festival among Roman citizens. However, by the end of the fifth century, it seems the ruling classes felt the ritual was beneath the sophistication of the empire. Which led to a big change.
According to some sources, Pope Gelasius was so contemptuous of Lupercalia that he banned it. By this time, Christianity had become Rome’s main religion and, as luck would have it, the feast of St. Valentine fell directly in the middle of the bizarre fertility festival. As a result, the emperor simply changed the focus of the annual celebration.
However, Valentine’s Day didn’t become a lover’s festival overnight. According to historian Noel Lensch, the celebrations barely changed to begin with. He told NPR, “It was a little more of a drunken revel. But the Christian’s put clothes back on it.” And, we hope, got rid of the animal skin. He added, “That didn’t stop it from being a day of fertility.”
And that’s really how Valentine’s Day remained for many centuries – a drunken revel with the purpose of pregnancy. By the Middle Ages, though, the festival started to take on a more recognizable shape. You see, the concept of romantic love ‒ pairing up with someone you care about ‒ began to flourish around this time. And February 14 slowly came to symbolize it.
In fact, some of the earliest surviving Valentine’s messages wonderfully reflect the joy and pain of love. And the world’s oldest February 14 note was composed by the French Duke of Orleans in the early 15th century. It read, “I’m already tired of love, my very painful Valentine.” That note, believe it or not, was for his wife.
However, the oldest surviving English Valentine is far less dramatic. But it’s hardly romantic either. Penned by Margery Brewes in 1477, she signed off her February 14 message to her fiancee thus, “my right-well beloved Valentine.” So never let it be said that the British know nothing about seduction.
Still, short notes are a world away from the Valentine’s tradition that 21st century romantics are familiar with. Those started in 19th century Britain and we’ve got the Victorians to thank for many of them. Let’s start with Valentine’s cards. Before 1840, romantic messages had to be hand-made and then hand-delivered. But something unexpected changed all that.
You see, in 1840 the postage stamp was invented, allowing Valentines to be sent anywhere in Britain for a penny. And this mail revolution led to 400,000 February 14 messages being sent the following year. But the mail wasn’t the only factor in that massive spike in numbers. There was also one other, now traditional reason.
As we mentioned earlier, prior to the invention of the postage stamp, mail had to be hand-delivered. So if you were sending a message of love, you had to essentially give it to the recipient in person. Of course, that gave away the secret. But the new system meant that Valentine’s messages could be sent anonymously. And, it seems, potential lovers the country over took advantage of that fact. And the Victorian traditions didn’t end there.
Of course, before you could mail a Valentine’s message, you first had to write one. But thanks to the newly-invented mass-production of paper, you no longer had to compose that love note yourself. And paper Valentines, as they were known, first became available during the 19th century. Pre-printed with sketches and verses, they were incredibly popular and soon gave way to much fancier versions, covered in ribbons and lace. It’s all starting to sound rather familiar, isn’t it? Wait til you hear about the chocolate.
Well, the tradition of giving a box of chocolates on Valentine’s Day also came from the Victorians. But this allegedly puritanical generation wasn’t handing out delicious cocoa-based treats for the fun of it. Or maybe they were. Because as it turns out, they saw chocolate as a means to seduction. Etiquette books of the period even warn women of the dangers of accepting any from strangers.
That’s correct, and professor of food history Rebecca Earle perfectly summed up the Victorian attitude to chocolate. She told Country Living magazine in 2017, “Because chocolates were so closely associated with courtship and sex, Victorian etiquette books warned that single ladies should never accept chocolates ‘from gentlemen to whom they are neither related nor engaged.’”
And that close association between chocolate and dating may not have been a complete accident. In fact, a striking similarity between the intricately designed boxes, and the clothes women of the period wore, has been identified by historians. Adorned with and enrobed in paper, lace and ribbons, the layers appeared to mimic the clothing of women – with the ultimate temptation lying underneath in both circumstances. And still the traditions keep coming.
Indeed, the Victorian Valentine’s traditions are manifold. Let’s take flowers. During the period, floriography, or the expression of feelings through different blooms, was popular. But it required, we imagine, an extensive knowledge of botany. Luckily, red roses signified romance, and that’s something that we’ve held onto. Hence the giving of those particular stems on February 14.
Of course, the increasing popularity of Valentine’s Day has seen it become big business. As we mentioned earlier, billions are spent each year on related gifts, feeding the perception of a Hallmark holiday. And while there’s a decent argument to be made for it existing purely as a commercial enterprise, celebrating can have benefits.
Yes, believe it or not, exchanging gifts or going out with your partner on Valentine’s Day is good for your relationship. And that’s official. According to a report in the Personality and Individual Differences journal, partaking in festivities leads to “enhanced perception of relationship function.” So, there you have it. And the benefits don’t stop there.
Indeed, this next benefit, admittedly, really only works for a certain number of the population. But, apparently, if heavily pregnant around mid-February, women are more likely to give birth on Valentine’s Day. For it seems that feeling the love that day can send signals to the body that it’s time to give birth.
Despite those positives, it could be said that Valentine’s Day celebrations might have got somewhat out of control. For instance, gift giving for this holiday now encompasses everything from underwear built for two and personalized gin, to heart-shaped cheese. What any of this has to do with romance is anyone’s guess. But it is…somewhat cheesy.
So, when you’re eating your chocolates, smelling your roses and generally reveling in February 14 joyousness, spare a thought for St. Valentine. For he died, painfully, for bringing people together in love. And furthermore, he inadvertently helped stop women thinking that animal skin had any bearing on their fertility. On that note, have a happy Valentine’s Day!