Valentine’s Day history and the traditions surrounding it

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Valentine’s Day history may not play a big role in contemporary observations of the holiday, but knowing a little about the history might help us consider the day in a new light – especially in the sense of sacrificial love. 

After we take a quick tour of the history, we’ll discover some traditions old, new, and afar. You might even come up with a few Valentine’s gifts ideas for your friends, family, and coworkers.

Valentine's Day history
Image source: Provided by the British Library’s image of the 1875 publication of “Richardson’s New Fashionable Lady’s Valentine Writer, or Cupid’s Festival of Love.”

Where did Valentine’s Day originally come from?

Determining the origins of St. Valentine’s Day depends on if you are referring to Valentine’s day in the religious or secular sense. In today’s highly secular world, we’ve mostly dropped the “Saint” from the holiday. However, there is a religious story behind Valentine’s Day and before that a pagan history.

As a religious holiday, St. Valentine’s Day is commemorated by the Anglicans and the Lutherans on February 14. Catholics recognize the martyred priest as a saint but no longer hold an official feast day. 

The Church of England celebrates the martyrdom of St. Valentine “to reflect on the sacrificial love of God in Christ as an example for the human love between men and women.”

The Lutherans consider the commemoration of saints important for three reasons: 

  • As a way of thanking God for faithful servants
  • As a way to strengthen our faith
  • As a way to imitate their holy living according to our calling

As a pagan holiday, mid February in Rome was associated with an ancient pre-Roman practice called Lupercalia, a festival of fertility, most likely associated with shepherd’s herds. Goats and dogs were sacrificed by priests called Lupercal.

The festival, which also celebrates the rescue of Romulus and Remus by a shepherd, began as early as the founding of Rome, 753 BC. 

By some accounts, the festival became quite debaucherous. “Lupercalia was a bloody, violent and sexually-charged celebration awash with animal sacrifice, random matchmaking and coupling in the hopes of warding off evil spirits and infertility,” according to the editors on the History Channel website. 

As a contemporary secular holiday, it’s not difficult to guess that our version of the holiday grew with its commercialization, as has happened with other Christian holidays.

To understand more about Valentine’s Day history from the Christian perspective, we start with finding out about the martyr behind the name.

Who was St. Valentine?

St. Valentine of Rome, known as the patron saint of courtly love, is also the patron saint of epileptics and beekeepers. However, answering the question “Who was St. Valentine?” isn’t easy. 

Historians aren’t exactly sure either. They acknowledge that he could be one of three Christian martyrs. Experts generally agree that the man known as St. Valentine was a third-century clergyperson who was beaten with clubs and beheaded February 14, AD 270, on the orders of Roman Emperor Claudius II, the Goth.

It seems fairly official because previous popes committed to this version of history. Although, in 1969 the Roman Catholic Church removed St. Valentine from the General Roman Calendar, on which liturgical veneration dates are based, because of the lack of historical data, but the church still recognizes him as a saint.

Historic accounts suggest that his body was buried on February 14 at a Christian cemetery to the north of Rome. Pope Julius (333-356) later built a basilica at the site to preserve St. Valentine’s tomb. Archeological digs have since found evidence of the tomb. 

Some historians believe that St. Valentine may have been two martyrs, as explained in this YouTube tour of the catacombs.

Relics of St. Valentine

During the 13th century pontificate of Nicholas IV, St. Valentine’s relics were moved to Santa Prassede, which is among the oldest churches in Rome. In the 9th century, a new church was built upon the 1st century site. 

The Basilica of Saint Praxedes (Santa Prassede in Italian) is best known for Rome’s most important and impressive collection of Byzantine mosaics. Among its famous relics is a partial pillar upon which Jesus was flogged.

Credit: Santa Prassede Church in Rome by Carlo Raso on Flickr

The three most well-known pilgrimages sites for St. Valentine are:

  • Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome
  • Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church in Dublin, Ireland
  • St Anton’s Church, Madrid, Spain

Valentine's Day history
St. Valentine relics located in the minor basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome. CC image courtesy of Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P. on Flickr.
St. Valentine's history
St Valentine Baptizing St Lucilla (c. 1575), Bassano del Grappa

Valentine’s Day history and traditions

When I grew up in the USA, Valentine’s Day traditions for children were mostly centered around school activities. We decorated small brown lunch sacks and hung them on a wall in the classroom. Each sack had our name on it. 

At first, we were allowed to choose whose sack we placed a Valentine’s card. But, it wasn’t long before school policy changed and we had to bring in a card for each and every student in our class. The idea was that it was a move loving practice so that some students weren’t left out.

We could also place candies in the sacks along with the cards. I personally loved the little candy hearts with messages on them. Brach’s still makes the candy hearts, but I’m told that they no longer taste the same. If you try, please let me know!

As I became an older teenager, the thing was whether your boyfriend would give you flowers and/or chocolates. Every young woman at that time wanted to receive red roses because that meant love! 

Young adulthood added on the chance of going to dinner at a nice restaurant. 

My dad always gave my mom chocolates and flowers. I don’t think we had the money for them to go on a nice dinner out as well.

As I got a little older, I noticed that some women also received jewelry – maybe even diamonds! It was more than enough that my mom and dad always sent me a Valentine’s Day card and Godiva chocolates! That seemed like a huge splurge to me!

Before my Aunt Patsy passed, she also sent me a Valentine’s gift every year.

What are family traditions important

Family traditions

If you enjoy learning about traditions, we have a story written by Steeple correspondent Adriana David who wanted to dive into family traditions around the world to help her learn more about the importance of traditions in her own family.

Valentine traditions in the U.S.

In the U.S., our traditions are mainly secular. Here’s a list of the most common traditions for Americans on Valentine’s Day. If you have something to add to the list, we would love to hear about it. Drop a comment below, please. 

  • Sending greeting cards
  • Giving chocolates and roses
  • Going out to a nice, romantic dinner
  • Giving jewelry
  • Proposals of marriage

We used to have other traditions that we might want to consider bringing back. Things like:

  • Writing or reciting poetry
  • Handwritten love letters or cards
  • Homemade cards
  • Giving saveable chocolate boxes (that were actually used for other things, like saving cards)

The number of Americans who celebrate Valentine’s Day each year has been in decline but the average amount they spend on the holiday continues to increase!

For example, in 2009 Americans spent $14.7 billion on Valentine’s Day, according to the National Retail Association. That number steadily grew. In 2019, Americans spent $20.7 billion. But in 2020, the increase was steep – all the way up to $27.4 billion!

The most popular way to celebrate is an evening out, according to Statistica. In 2018, Americans spent $5.5 billion on going out.

Pet owners are increasingly celebrating their furry loved ones on Valentine’s Day, evidenced by the $1.7 billion they were expected to spend in 2020 for this one holiday. The National Retail Association expected 1 in 4 people to purchase a gift for a pet in 2020 for Valentine’s.

Valentine’s Day traditions around the world

The holiday became popular in the 1950s in Japan as a day when women do the gift giving, but men reciprocate a month later on a holiday known as White Day. By far, the most popular gift is chocolate.

The boxes are just as important as the chocolates. Stores sell exquisitely designed boxes and offer to wrap them as well. Handmade chocolates are also becoming popular.

In the 1950s, “(and sometimes even now) female ‘kokuhaku’, or the act of confessing feelings, was considered radical and taboo,” according to an article on Kobe Jones. “By establishing a day when it was acceptable for women to take a risk and confess their feelings in Japan, chocolate makers and gift sellers not only found a great marketing opportunity, they also helped change the way men and women interacted in Japan.”

In France, la Saint Valentin is for lovers. Sending loving gestures to friends and co-workers in the form of cards or gifts is likely to be misunderstood at the worst and confusing at best.

As in the U.S., the French send flowers (mostly roses), chocolates, and have an evening out. Sending cards is less popular.

Norwegians celebrate Valentinsdagen or All Hearts Day (Alle Hjerters Dag) in much the same way as other western countries, but the fanfare is much less than in the U.S. Commercialization of the holiday is fairly new. Flowers, cards, and chocolates are popular choices, but as in France, the gifts are for lovers, not friends.

In Norway, gift giving may even be losing steam. The Norwegian bank DNB found that spending for the holiday was reduced by half in 2020, as reported by the Nordic Page.  Among young people, spending remains steady for Valentine’s gifts.

In 2005, the government of Ghana and the Ghanaian cocoa industry partnered to launch National Chocolate Day, and on what day other than February 14! It’s been going strong ever since. 

A few years after launching the holiday, the tourism board knew they had a hit. 

“Thousands of Ghanaians who normally do not have a chocolate-eating  culture –  even though the country produces the best quality cocoa beans in the world and for many decades was the world’s largest producer  of cocoa beans –  took to the brown stuff, so much so that there was an immediate shortage of chocolate across the country,” according to an article in the New African magazine in March 2007.

Valentine’s Day 2021

I’m pleased that in the USA we celebrate the day by recognizing all sorts of loving relationships. I plan to continue some of our family Valentine’s Day traditions, such as giving Godiva chocolates to my parents.

At Americana Steeples, we pulled together a Valentine’s Day gift guide to help you think of beautiful ways to recognize loved ones on this national day of love.

The 3D Innovation Company will take your photo and engrave it into a 3D model inside this crystal heart. It comes with a lighted base that needs to be plugged into an outlet or USB. It comes in three sizes.

Scott bought it for his wife, Bonnie. “An absolutely fantastic gift,” he wrote. “While it may initially seem expensive, this is of a very high quality, both the item itself and the craftsmanship and presentation (packaging). My wife loves it. This is well worth the money and I highly recommend it.”

For that friend who is like a sister to you, this insulated tumbler mug is good for drinks ranging from wine to coffee to iced coffee and all drinks in between! It comes in 4 colors.

For grandparents or a significant other, the Nambe 5 x 7 silver-plated photo frame is crafted with Acacia wood. Nambe is known for collaborating with modern designers. This frame was designed by Mike Altomari.

In transitional modern style, the affordable Nambe mini Love Bowl was designed by Sean O’Hara, an  award winning designer, sculptor and furniture maker. O’Hara graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design and then pursued graduate studies in Vienna, Austria.

Vintage Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day is one of those holidays that makes me feel nostalgic. I remember the cute cupid dolls on Valentine’s cards and old-fashioned candies. Turns out, it’s still possible to buy reproductions of some of those old-fashioned Valentine’s Day items.

How about cupid on a throw pillow? This 12 x 20 cotton/linen pillow cover with a hidden zipper is machine washable in cold water. The back side of the cover is plain linen, and it does not come with the pillow insert.

These old-fashioned wall art sets come in six different styles of art. A set includes four 8 x 10 satin matte cardstock prints.

We explored Valentine’s Day history from the religious and secular perspectives and talked about traditions in the USA and abroad. We’ve even brainstormed some beautiful Valentine’s Day gift ideas. But what we don’t know is how you like to celebrate the holiday. We hope to hear from you in the comments below!

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