Valentine’s Day was once better known as St. Valentine’s Day, or the Feast of Saint Valentine, a Christian holiday that commemorated one or more early saints named Valentinus. The are several martyrdom stories for the figure associated with the holiday, the most famous being that of Saint Valentine of Rome. There are many variations of this story that more or less have the same theme.
According to legend, he was imprisoned and sentenced to death for performing weddings for soldiers, who were forbidden to marry. While in prison, he healed the daughter of his jailer, Asterius, whom he fell in love with. Before his execution he wrote her a letter signed “Your Valentine” as a farewell, which presumably inspired the tradition of sending cards to loved ones. While it has no historical basis — for example, soldiers were never forbidden to marry — it was nonetheless an engaging story. (Valentine’s Day is still celebrated among some Christian sects and circles.)
February 14th was was first associated with romantic love during the High Middle Ages, as first recorded in the Parlement of Foules (1382) by Geoffrey Chaucer. During this time, the practice of courtly love became popular; this was a presumably chivalrous expression of love and admiration that was usually practiced in secret between members of the nobility (note that it was generally not practiced between husband and wife).
Like most holidays, it was during the Industrial Era — namely 18th-century England — that modern Valentine Day as we know it emerge. By then, it had evolved into an occasion in which people expressed their love for each other by presenting flowers, offering confectionery, and sending greeting cards (known as “valentines”). Many of the symbols used today — such as heart-shaped outline, doves, and the figure of the winged Cupid — became popular around know. While handwritten notes were once the norm, they soon gave way to mass-produced valentines cards, which were first produced and sold in the United States in 1847 by Esther Howland of Worcester, Massachusetts (they were made of embossed paper lace).
According to a 2010 study by the U.S. Greeting Card Association (yes, that’s a real thing) approximately 190 million valentines are sent annually in the U.S., half of which are given to family members other than a husband or wife, usually to children. If you include the valentine-exchange cards made in school activities, the number goes up to 1 billion, with teachers receiving the most valentines.
As for the iconic heart shape associated with Valentine’s Day (and love in general), that too seems to have its earliest origins in the High Middle Ages, beginning in the 15th century and becoming popular in the 16th century onward. Here’s the first known depiction of the heart shape, from the mid-13th century French manuscript, Roman de la poire:
There are various theories as to the origin of the shape, none of which are definitive: hypotheses include that it’s the shape of the seed of the silphium plant, used in ancient times as an herbal contraceptive; or stylized depictions of features of the human female body, such as the female’s buttocks, pubic mound, or spread vulva.
Anyway, you all have a happy Valentine’s Day. I’ve got no significant other to spend it with, but I do have a great singles-party to enjoy, complete with a party bus and nightclub destination! Whatever your plans, have a great one my loyal readers.