Have you ever wondered about the origins of Valentine’s Day? Where did our favorite romantic holiday find its many symbols–the pink and red, the cards, the sweets, and the hearts? Is it really, as some suggest, a holiday cooked up by greeting card companies?
Valentine’s Day is an old holiday, with roots extending all the way back to third-century Rome and a Roman Catholic presbyter named Valentinus. Most of the facts have been lost to history, and all we really know for certain is that Valentinus was martyred and buried in a cemetery on the Via Flaminia. His alleged skull, ringed with a crown of flowers, is on display in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. It’s both creepy and Valentine’s-y, no?
Legend has it that on the night before he was to be martyred, Valentine sent a card to the daughter of his prison guard, for whom he’d performed a healing miracle. He signed the card “your Valentine”. Did that simple letter start the tradition of sending cards with the words “from your Valentine”? We can’t know. Some sources claim this young woman planted an almond tree on Valentine’s grave. Its pink blossoms have endured as a symbol of love and friendship.
Probably, the St. Valentine we remember on February 14th is a composite of two or three men named Valentine, who were all active in the church at that time. There are many unverified legends associated with this figure. One is that he performed secret weddings for active military soldiers who were forbidden to marry during times of conflict. (It’s been argued Claudius never issued such a ban.)
Soldiers who were keen to marry their sweethearts in a holy Christian ceremony would recognize Valentine by the amethyst Cupid ring he wore. Since Cupid was an approved symbol of love during the marriage ban, the ring was a safe secret sign. It’s probably one reason the amethyst became the February birthstone, since it’s believed by some to attract love!
Another legend is that Valentine also cut parchment paper hearts and presented them to soldiers and other persecuted Christians as a reminder to uphold their serious vows and to remember the greatest love from Heaven.
It wasn’t until Chaucer published the Parlement of Foules in the fourteenth century that St. Valentine’s Day became associated with “courtly love”, and many of the traditions we celebrate today. That’s right, writers. Chaucer and his following created a holiday. Now that’s the power of a great story!
Romantic courtiers started to apply themselves to Valentine’s poems. The now-cheesy “Roses are red…” line first showed up in 1590, in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen!
It didn’t take long to match sweet words with sweet treats, and the Cadbury candy company claims credit for making the first heart-shaped box of chocolates in 1868. Mass-marketed paper valentines showed up around 1847. And so it goes, even today.
Whether you’re celebrating Valentine’s Day or Pal-entine’s Day, I wish you all the joy, sweets, and sentiment the holiday has to offer. What’s the best valentine you’ve ever received?
Cole Smith is a writer, teacher, and mountain biker in West Virginia. She enjoys good coffee and great stories. She shares inspiration, encouragement, and tips for creative overwhelm at www.colesmithwrites.com.