Every February 14, across the United States and in other places around the world, candy, flowers and gifts are exchanged between loved ones, all in the name of St. Valentine. But who is this mysterious saint, and where did these traditions come from? Find out about the history of this centuries-old holiday, from ancient Roman rituals to the customs of Victorian England.
The Legend of St. Valentine
The history of Valentine’s Day – and the story of its patron saint – is shrouded in mystery. We do know that February has long been celebrated as a month of romance, and that St. Valentine’s Day, as we know it today, contains vestiges of both Christian and ancient Roman tradition. But who was Saint Valentine, and how did he become associated with this ancient rite?
The Catholic Church recognizes at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom were martyred. One legend contends that Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome. When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death.
Other stories suggest that Valentine may have been killed for attempting to help Christians escape harsh Roman prisons, where they were often beaten and tortured. According to one legend, an imprisoned Valentine actually sent the first “valentine” greeting himself after he fell in love with a young girl–possibly his jailor’s daughter–who visited him during his confinement. Before his death, it is alleged that he wrote her a letter signed “From your Valentine,” an expression that is still in use today. Although the truth behind the Valentine legends is murky, the stories all emphasize his appeal as a sympathetic, heroic and, most importantly, romantic figure. By the Middle Ages, perhaps thanks to this reputation, Valentine would become one of the most popular saints in England and France.
Origins of Valentine’s Day: A Pagan Festival In February
While some believe that Valentine’s Day is celebrated in the middle of February to commemorate the anniversary of Valentine’s death or burial–which probably occurred around A.D. 270–others claim that the Christian church may have decided to place St. Valentine’s feast day in the middle of February in an effort to “Christianize” the pagan celebration of Lupercalia. Celebrated at the ides of February, or February 15, Lupercalia was a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, as well as to the Roman founders Romulus and Remus.
To begin the festival, members of the Luperci, an order of Roman priests, would gather at a sacred cave where the infants Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were believed to have been cared for by a she-wolf or lupa. The priests would sacrifice a goat, for fertility, and a dog, for purification. They would then strip the goat’s hide into strips, dip them into the sacrificial blood and take to the streets, gently slapping both women and crop fields with the goat hide. Far from being fearful, Roman women welcomed the touch of the hides because it was believed to make them more fertile in the coming year. Later in the day, according to legend, all the young women in the city would place their names in a big urn. The city’s bachelors would each choose a name and become paired for the year with his chosen woman. These matches often ended in marriage.
Valentine’s Day: A Day of Romance
Lupercalia survived the initial rise of Christianity and but was outlawed—as it was deemed “un-Christian”–at the end of the 5th century, when Pope Gelasius declared February 14 St. Valentine’s Day. It was not until much later, however, that the day became definitively associated with love. During the Middle Ages, it was commonly believed in France and England that February 14 was the beginning of birds’ mating season, which added to the idea that the middle of Valentine’s Day should be a day for romance.
Valentine greetings were popular as far back as the Middle Ages, though written Valentine’s didn’t begin to appear until after 1400. The oldest known valentine still in existence today was a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt. The greeting is now part of the manuscript collection of the British Library in London, England. Several years later, it is believed that King Henry V hired a writer named John Lydgate to compose a valentine note to Catherine of Valois.
What would you do if your beloved gave you a wooden spoon on Valentine's Day?
Although you might be confused if you are used to chocolates in a heart-shaped box, if you happen to have grown up in Wales, that would be perfectly normal. Young men there typically present "love spoons" to their paramours, a tradition inspired by Welsh sailors creating homemade gifts for their sweethearts while at sea. The "love spoon" exchange, along with many other global Valentine's Day traditions, shows that old-fashioned romance is not dead.
Countries around the world have one-of-a-kind customs that range from Estonia's "love bus" rides for singles to mass weddings in the Philippines. While the actual practices can vary in date and target audience (some traditions specifically celebrate the singles among us!), citizens of many countries set aside time to commemorate some sort of commitment. In some places, the difference in approach to the day is even more stark, as public displays of love and affection are outright banned on February 14.
While you probably will not want to adopt all of the cultural customs highlighted below, read and consider those, which may refresh your romantic relationship, show your creative approach, and make this day unforgettable for your partner and yourself. Or, maybe, make up your own unique ritual to show your love and affection.
In the United States of America, there have been many varieties of cards given over the course of the years, some of which have often been rude or even quite cruel in their humor. In the times of the Civil War, cards were flagged with rich colors accompanied by patriotic and/or political motifs. Early American valentine cards were especially lithographed and hand-colored, beautiful and distinctive in design, produced with intricate lace paper and decorated with such ornaments as beads, sea shells, cones, berries and all manner of seeds. Cards were also available decorated with seaweed or moss, in addition to dried and/or artificial flowers, all of which were attached to a string which was pulled and could then be suspended, thereby creating a three-dimensional picture. Many early American cards were imported from abroad, given the poor quality of American paper at the time which was not particularly suitable for embossing. Today, American children usually exchange valentines with their friends and there may even be a classroom party.
Valentine’s Day festival is celebrated with much enthusiasm in Canada. Valentine's Day balls and parties are organized all over the country where people express love for their spouses and sweethearts and enjoy to the hilt. Roses, chocolates, candies and cards are the most popular gifts for the romantic occasion. As a tradition, children in Canada exchange Valentine's Day gifts with their friends. In several schools, classroom Valentine's Day Parties are organized where children put all the valentines in a decorated box. Later, teacher or a child distributes the cards. Kids are encouraged to prepare handmade valentine. Many children also gift fancy Valentine’s Day card to parents and teachers. Songs, skits, plays and concerts are also organized by schools and societies to celebrate Valentine's Day. Students in senior school hold Valentine's Day dance parties to cherish the joyful festival.
3. United Kingdom
The aura of mystery is alive and well on Valentine's Day in the U.K. In a tradition dating back to the Victorian era, Brits traditionally send anonymous valentines to their romantic interests. The Victorians believed signing your name on the card was considered bad luck. The U.K. also claims responsibility for starting the practice of giving roses on Valentine's Day, since that flower was traditionally seen as the favorite of Venus, the Roman goddess of love.
During the Australian gold rush period, miners who were suddenly in possession of money from the new-found wealth of the Ballarat Mines were willing to pay a princely sum for elaborate valentines and merchants in the country would ship orders amounting to thousands of pounds at a time. The most extravagant Australian valentines were made of a satin cushion, perfumed and decorated in an ornate manner with flowers and colored shells. Some might even be adorned with a taxidermied humming bird or bird of paradise. This treasure, contained within a neatly decorated box, was highly valued, being both fashionable and extremely expensive.
So it's not technically a Valentine's Day tradition, but rather than professing their love on February 14, the Welsh celebrate St. Dwynwen's Day on January 25. Wales Online explains that St. Dwynwen is the "Welsh patron saint of lovers" and men traditionally give women hand-carved wooden spoons as a romantic gesture. The custom is thought to have originated when Welsh sailors carved designs into wooden spoons while at sea to bring back to the women at home.
In Scotland, Valentine's Day is celebrated with a festival. At this festival, there is an equal number of unmarried males and females, each of whom write their name (or a made-up name) on a piece of paper which is then folded and placed into a hat...one hat for the ladies and one for the men. The females then draw a name from the hat containing the men's names and vice versa. Of course, it is highly likely that the two drawn names will not match, in which event, it is usually expected that the male partner with the female who selected his name. This rite having been completed, the company split up into couples and gifts are given to the ladies. The females would then pin the name of their partner over their hearts or on their sleeves. A dance often follows and, at the end of the festival, it is not unusual for marriages to take place. According to another Scottish custom, the first young man or woman encountered by chance on the street or elsewhere will become that individual's valentine. Valentine's Day gifts in Scotland are frequently given by both parties in the form of a love-token or true-love-knot.
In Germany, it has become customary for the young man of a courting couple to present his beloved with flowers on February 14. Valentine gifts in Germany are usually in the shape of love tokens, complete with endearing messages. However, these are not distributed solely on Valentine's Day, but on any occasion. Even early German baptismal certificates or marriage certificates were considered at one time to have been valentines, but were more likely simply decorative and pictorial documents which contained lovely verses.
In France, a custom known as "drawing for" once occurred. Unmarried individuals, both young and not so young, would go into houses facing each other and begin calling out across from one window to another, pairing-off with the chosen partner. If the young man failed to be particularly enthralled with his valentine, he would desert her. As a result, a bonfire would be lit later where the ladies could burn images of the ungrateful sweetheart and verbally abuse him in a loud tone as the effigy burned. This ritual was eventually abandoned since it left much room for nastiness, ridicule or even outright malice and the French government finally handed-down a decree officially banning the custom. Elegant French greetings cards known as cartes d'amities, which contained tender messages, were given not totally as a Valentine but chiefly as a result of a fashion which was popular in England at the time.
In Italy, Valentine's Day was once celebrated as a Spring Festival, held in the open air, where young people would gather in tree arbors or ornamental gardens to listen to music and the reading of poetry. However, over the course of the years, this custom steadily ceased and has not now been celebrated for centuries. In Turin, it was formerly the custom for betrothed couples to announce their engagements on February 14. For several days ahead of time, the stores would be decorated and filled with all manner of bon-bons.
Austria has some rather obscure courtship customs that may or may not be associated with Saint Valentine's Day. Nonetheless, it is customary for a young man to present his beloved with a bunch of flowers on February 14.
In Spain, it is customary for courting couples to exchange gifts on Valentine's Day and for husbands to send their wives bouquets of roses.
In Slovenia, February 14 is considered a great day for working in the fields, according to many reports. St. Valentine is one of the patron saints of spring, so what better time to get out on the farm or vineyard after the long winter and start working on the future harvest? All isn't lost for lovers, though. Roughly a month later, Slovenians traditionally celebrate St. Gregory's Day, March 12, as a romantic holiday.
Many Polish people celebrate Valentine’s Day (Walentynki), a day associated with romance and love, on February 14. Valentine’s Day focuses on love, romance, appreciation and friendship. Chocolates, candies shaped in red hearts, and other gifts are given to loved ones on Valentine’s Day. Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Women’s Day are also observed in Poland, in which friends, partners, and family members received gifts, cards or flowers.
When the so-called Iron Curtain fell down, people of the Former Soviet Union saw that there are a lot of nice European and American holidays and have eagerly adopted some of them. There is no point in describing Ukrainian St. Valentine's Day as there is practically no difference from the Western holiday of the same name.
15. Estonia & Finland
All aboard the love bus! While Estonia celebrates Friend's Day on February 14, the country also has an interesting tradition for single people. Those not romantically attached on Valentine's Day can take a ride on the love bus — yes, it’s really called that — in the hopes of meeting someone special. And even if you don't meet your match aboard the bus, taking the ride with your other pals is your Friend's Day consolation prize. In Finland, February 14 is also known as Friend's Day — a holiday traditionally celebrated with your entire squad, not just your significant other. Cards and gifts are still in order, but for everybody. Even if Friend's Day sounds a lot like a kinder name for Singles Awareness Day, there are still plenty of people in the Nordic country, where public displays of affection are rare, who celebrate their romantic relationships on February 14: it's a popular day to get engaged, and stores are full of heart-shaped Valentine's Day paraphernalia.
Although Valentine’s Day is a relatively new holiday in Denmark (celebrated since the early 1990s according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark), the country has embraced February 14th with a Danish twist. Rather than roses, friends and sweethearts exchange pressed white flowers called snowdrops. Another popular Danish Valentine’s Day tradition is the exchange of “lover’s cards.” While lover’s cards were originally transparent cards which showed a picture of the card giver presenting a gift to his sweetheart, the term is now synonymous with any card exchanged on Valentine’s Day. On February 14th, men also give women gaekkebrev, a “joking letter” consisting of a funny poem or rhyme written on intricately cut paper and signed only with anonymous dots. If a woman who receives the gaekkebrev can correctly guess the sender, she earns herself an Easter egg later that year.
Japanese women do not wait for men to make the first move, at least on Valentine’s Day. For one day of the year, Japanese women traditionally give men gifts and affection, instead of the other way around. One particularly popular gift is chocolate — homemade honmei-choco for the object of your desire or store-bought giri-choco as a non-romantic sign of affection for friends and coworkers. The nation's men return the favor on March 14, known as White Day, when guys give women white chocolate or other white gifts.
The equivalent to Valentine’s Day in China is Qixi, or the Seventh Night Festival, which falls on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month each year. According to Chinese lore, Zhinu, a heavenly king’s daughter, and Niulang, a poor cowherd, fell in love, married and had twins. When Zhinu’s father learned of their marriage, he sent his queen to bring Zhinu back to the stars. Upon hearing the cries of Niulang and the children, the king allowed Zhinu and Niulang to meet once a year on Qixi. During Qixi, young women prepare offerings of melon and other fruits to Zhinu in hopes of finding a good husband. Couples also head to temples to pray for happiness and prosperity. At night, people look to the heavens to watch as stars Vega and Altair (Zhinu and Niulang, respectively) come close during the star-crossed pair’s annual reunion.
19. South Korea
Many women in South Korea (as in Japan) spend Valentine's Day showering men with gifts, and the men do the giving on White Day, March 14. But South Korea takes things a step further with a third holiday. On April 14, known as Black Day, single friends gather to eat noodles and celebrate their (lack of) relationship status. The holiday takes its name from the noodle dish, which includes white noodles in a black bean sauce. Black Day celebrations are spirited and fun, but somber in origin — the black food symbolizes sorrow.
Valentine's Day is celebrated in Taiwan on February 14, but there is also a special Valentine's Day on July 7 of the lunar calendar, based on an ancient Chinese folktale (**). Both dates are equally as important. Many men purchase expensive bouquets of roses and other flowers for their sweethearts on these days. According to Taiwan tradition, the color and number of the roses holds much significance. For example, one red rose means "an only love," eleven roses means "a favorite," ninety-nine roses means "forever," and one hundred eight roses means "marry me."
Valentine's Day celebration is a recent phenomenon in India but has caught the fancy of people to a great extent. Though some see it as a western import and hesitate to celebrate, there exist a large and growing number of those who love the feeling behind the beautiful and romantic festival. Especially to the Indian youth February 14 signifies love - a day when people express their affection for others. Just as several other countries, people in India too celebrate the Valentine's Day by exchanging cards and gifts.
Exchanging over-the-top gifts for Valentine's Day may seem like a Western tradition, but Iraqis also celebrate February 14 in style. In Iraq, huge teddy bears, red roses, and traditional Valentine's Day cards are common. Al Arabiya explains that on Valentine's Day, all of Baghdad appears to be overtaken by the color red. That said, conservative Muslims don't celebrate the day and view it as a Western holiday.
23. Saudi Arabia
Valentine's Day is officially banned in Saudi Arabia. In the days before February 14, it’s illegal to sell roses and love-themed greeting cards in the desert kingdom, where conservative Muslims believe the holiday promotes alcohol consumption and premarital sex. If you happen to be there, you're likely to encounter officers from Saudi Arabia's Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, especially if you engage in any public displays of affection (those are also punishable by law). One shop owner in Saudi Arabia told WorldPost that there's a sort of underground market for red roses; customers place the orders over the phone, and the secret gifts are hidden in the back of the store, in case police inspect the retailer. Saudi Arabia isn't the only country to clamp down on Valentine’s Day. Iran, Malaysia, and Indonesia have enacted similar bans.
How would you feel about sharing your wedding day with another couple? We think of brides and grooms as loving the spotlight, but that's not necessarily the case on Valentine’s Day in the Philippines, where couples line up for mass weddings on February 14. On Valentine's Day in 2013, 200 couples married in one ceremony in Quezon City, for example, and a total 4,000 couples were married throughout the country, Xinhua reports.
Brazil celebrates its version of Valentine's Day, Dia dos Namorados, in June. The holiday on June 12 is timed to coincide with St. Anthony’s Day on June 13. St. Anthony of Padua died on June 13, 1231 and is considered by some to be the patron saint of marriage. Dia dos Namorados, which roughly translates to "Lovers' Day," or "Boyfriends' /Girlfriends' Day," is celebrated with gifts and decorations similar to those traditionally found on Valentine's Day. Celebrating in June also leaves more time in February for Carnival, the raucous annual festival timed to coincide with the beginning of Lent.
One day isn't enough to celebrate Valentine's in Argentina, land of Tango. Argentinians take a week to celebrate the occasion. In addition to February 14th they set aside seven days in July for “sweetness week.” From the 13th to the 20th, lovers and friends will exchange candies and kisses. This week typically ends with “Friendship Day”.
Chile is known as “the land of poets”, and it is true that Chileans are really romantic too. The “Dia de San Valentin” is anticipated greatly by lovers. Chileans love to celebrate and Valentine’s Day is a special occasion for couples, who celebrate with true excitement. It’s typical to walk around the city and see decorations all around as shops, malls and streets are beautifully decorated with flowers, balloons, and heart garlands. Restaurants, pubs, clubs, travel agencies and hotels engage in huge marketing promotions to offer incentives to lovers to do something really special. Flowers, chocolates, love letters and jewels are typical gifts. Going out for a romantic dinner is also a tradition for couples and public concerts enhance the romantic mood throughout towns and cities across the country.
28. South Africa
Like many parts of the world, South Africa celebrates Valentine’s Day with festivals, flowers and other tokens of love. It’s also customary for women in South Africa to wear their hearts on their sleeves on February 14th; women pin the names of their love interest on their shirtsleeves, an ancient Roman tradition known as Lupercalia. In some cases, this is how South African men learn of their secret admirers.
Sources and Additional Information:http://www.internationalteflacademy.com/blog/bid/113268/Top-10-Valentine-s-Day-Celebrations-Around-the-World-While-Teaching-English