Valentine’s Day, or St Valentine’s Day, is celebrated every year on 14 February.

Flowers, cards, chocolates, red hearts and romance. That’s what Valentine’s day is all about, right? Well, maybe not

It all goes back to a mysterious, third century saint who suffered a brutal fate

The celebration appears to have its roots in a pagan fertility festival known as Lupercalia. Celebrated in ancient Rome between 13 – 15 February, the festival is said to have involved lots of naked folk running through the streets spanking the backsides of young women with leather whips, supposedly to improve their fertility.

It is thought that as part of the celebrations, boys drew names of girls from a box.  They’d be boyfriend and girlfriend during the festival and sometimes they’d get married.

Valentines day is named after Saint Valentine, a Catholic priest who lived in Rome in the 3rd Century.

At the time of Valentine’s life, many Romans were converting to Christianity, but the Emperor Claudius II was a pagan and created strict laws about what Christians were allowed to do. Claudius believed that Roman soldiers should be completely devoted to Rome and therefore passed a law preventing them from marrying. St Valentine began to marry these soldiers in secret Christian ceremonies and this was the beginning of his reputation for believing in the importance of love.

Eventually Valentine was found out and jailed for his crimes against Claudius. While imprisoned, Valentine cared for his fellow prisoners and also his jailor’s blind daughter. Legend has it that Valentine cured the girl’s blindness and that his final act before being executed was to write her a love message signed ‘from your Valentine’.

Valentine was executed on 14 February in or about the year 270

It wasn’t until more than 200 years later that 14 February was proclaimed St Valentine’s Day. By this time Rome had become Christian and the Catholic Church was determined to stamp out any remaining paganism. Lupercalia, the pagan fertility ritual, was held in February each year and the Pope abolished this festival and proclaimed 14 February Saint Valentine’s Day, thus establishing this feast day on the Catholic Calendar of Saints.

Thanks to the marital angle of his story, Valentine became the patron saint of love, young people, and marriages (and also of plague, epilepsy and beekeepers).

The practice of sending love messages developed into people sending special cards expressing their affection. These cards were beautiful creations handmade by the sender and individually designed to show how much they loved the recipient. Cards would usually contain sentimental verse, proclaiming the beauty of the receiver and how much they were loved.  They were decorated with pictures of cupid, hearts and flowers and trimmed with lace and ribbon. These images are still used today to symbolise love and are recognised all over the world.

The oldest existing Valentine card is believed to be housed in the manuscript collection of the British Library. In 1415, Charles Duke of Orléans, gave his wife a valentine, a poem composed in French, while being held prisoner in the Tower of London. The French nobleman was wounded and captured at the Battle of Agincourt during the Hundred Year’s War. The valentine poem that Charles wrote to his wife while in prison was not the typical happy-go-lucky valentine that we may be used to. Instead, the note was of sombre yearning. The duchess died before the poem could reach her. Over the duke’s 25 year imprisonment, he wrote his wife 60 love poems that are often said to have been the first “valentines.”

It was in Georgian Britain that pre-printed cards first began to appear, though these were not yet as popular as they were eventually to become. Perhaps the oldest surviving example dates from 1797.  This card, held at York Castle Museum, was sent by one Catherine Mossday to a Mr Brown of London. It is decorated with flowers and images of Cupid, with a verse printed around the border reading:    Since on this ever Happy day, All Nature’s full of Love and PlayYet harmless still if my design, ‘Tis but to be your Valentine.

The early 19th-century brought with it rapid advances in printing and manufacturing technologies. It became easier than ever to mass-produce Valentine’s cards, which soon became immensely popular. It is estimated that by the mid 1820s, some 200,000 Valentines were circulated in London alone. The introduction of the Uniform Penny Post in 1840 bolstered the popularity of Valentine’s cards yet further: reports suggest that by the late 1840s the number of cards being circulated doubled, doubling once again in the next two decades.

It was also in the 19th century that boxes of chocolates went on sale.  The first box of chocolates in a heart-shaped box for St Valentines Day was sold in 1868.


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