We all know that 14 February is St Valentine’s Day – accompanied these days with its commercialised retail opportunity to buy cards and gifts for loved ones. But do you know how it all began?
It all started as a third-century Christian feast to commemorate some early martyrs, all called Valentine, which must have been a popular name in those days. There was Valentine of Rome, a priest martyred in 269 (he ministered to Christians persecuted under the Roman Empire) and Valentine of Terni, a bishop martyred in 273. There also seem to have been another saint called Valentine who was martyred in Africa with other companions, although not much more is known about him.
(A fact of local interest to us is that a relic, claimed to be the head of St Valentine of Terni, was preserved in the New Minster in Winchester (the Benedictine abbey that was sited next to the present cathedral, the footprint of which can still be seen). It is worth remembering that relics were often preserved in religious houses and churches, some authentic, some not.)
In 496, 14 February became the day we remember these martyrs, being the date St Valentine of Rome died. Many centuries later, in the 1300s and 1400s, the day became associated for the first time with romance in the form of courtly love (a medieval concept, mostly in poetry and other literature, of chivalrous love).
By the eighteenth century, the celebration had evolved to a day for the exchange of greetings cards (now known as ‘valentines’), accompanied by flowers or confectionary. In 1797, a British publisher issued The Young Man’s Valentine Writer, which contained scores of suggested sentimental verses for the young lover unable to compose his own. Printers had already begun producing a limited number of cards with verses and sketches, called ‘mechanical valentines’.
Paper valentines became so popular in England in the early nineteenth century that they were assembled in factories. Fancy valentines were made with real lace and ribbons, with paper lace introduced in the mid-nineteenth century.
In 1835, 60,000 Valentine cards were sent by post in the UK, despite postage being expensive. A reduction in postal rates following the invention in 1840 of the postage stamp (the Penny Black) saw the number of valentines posted increase, with 400,000 sent just one year after its invention, ushering in the less personal but easier practice of posting valentines. That made it possible for the first time to exchange cards anonymously, which is taken as the reason for the sudden appearance of racy verse in an era otherwise prudishly Victorian. By the twentieth century handwritten cards had almost completely been replaced by bought, mass-produced ones.
Although we now associate St Valentine with romantic love, in some cultures the saint is associated with the beginning of spring and in some counties the date of 14 February marks the first day of spring. In Slovenia, Saint Valentine (or Zdravko) is one of the saints of spring, the saint of good health, and the patron of beekeepers and pilgrims. 14 February has also been celebrated as the day when the first work in the vineyards and in the fields commences. On that day, plants and flowers are said to start to grow and birds propose to each other or marry.
There have been various local traditions in the UK practised on St Valentine’s Day. In Norfolk, for example, a character called ‘Jack’ Valentine knocked on the doors of houses, leaving sweets and presents for children. Although he was leaving treats, many children were scared of this mystical person. In Peterborough sweet plum buns called Valentine Buns were made and eaten, and in Uppingham gingerbread was given to lovers. In Rutland buns shaped like a weaver’s shuttle called Plum Shuttles were made – and are still being made – for children on this day. In Wales, wooden love spoons are carved and given as gifts.
Flowers are the most common gift given: a dozen red roses or (more romantically and cheaper) just one red rose. Allegedly it was Charles II of Sweden, in the eighteenth century, who introduced the idea of flowers symbolising emotions, and the red rose was singled out for love. The number of roses has significance too: one rose means love, 12 means gratitude, 25 means congratulations and 50 means unconditional love.
Today, red roses stand for passionate love, pink roses for friendship, white for purity, and both red and white mean unity. Be sure to make sure your red rose is a nice bright red as dark red roses are a symbol of death.
Several Valentine’s Day superstitions have even made their way into our modern-day vocabularies. For example, in the Middle Ages young men and women drew names from a bowl to see who their valentines would be. They would wear these names on their sleeves for one week, so ‘to wear your heart on your sleeve’ nowadays means that it is easy for other people to know how you are feeling.
Although St Valentine’s Day is not a public holiday anywhere in the world, it is a feast day in the Anglican Communion and Lutheran Church. Many parts of the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrate it on 6 July in honour of St Valentine of Rome or on 30 July for St Valentine of Terni.