Origins of Valentine’s Day

On the topic of Valentine’s Day, how many of us have wondered where this day came from? Since many of our students do not have anything special reserved for this day, it is now time to discuss the origins of this festival!

According to Wikipedia, the origin of the name “Valentine” comes from St. Valentine. There are multiple saints with this name acknowledged by the Roman Catholic Church. One Valentine was a Christian priest from Rome in 270 CE. He, along with other Christians at the time, was held in prison by Emperor Claudius II Gothicus. Legend has it that prior to his execution, St. Valentine healed his jailer’s daughter, and wrote a letter to her signed, “from your Valentine”. He was later martyred by the Roman Catholic Church and February 14th was celebrated as a holiday to commemorate him.

St. Valentine Baptizing St. Lucilla, Jacopo Bassano (Wikipedia)

Cupid, the Roman god of love, is often associated with Valentine’s Day. He appears in Valentine-themed artwork and iconography as a chubby, winged baby. In traditional artwork, he always appeared as a winged youth armed with a bow and arrows, so his modern depictions instead refer to him as a ‘cherub’, though the incorrect usage of ‘cupid’ is also prevalent.

Songs of Spring, William-Adolphe Bouguereau (Wikipedia)

This usage of ‘cherub’ is also incorrect; the chubby-baby figure appearing in art does have a proper name: Putto. The Putti are also of Roman origin. According to Wikipedia, ‘cherub’ comes from Hebrew ‘cherubim’. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the cherubim are described as a host of angels with four heads: one of a man, one of a bull, one of an eagle, and one of a lion, and they possess many wings, each dotted with eyes. How this creature became associated with putti (or how it is an angel at all) is understandably beyond us.

Possible cherub on Neo-Assyrian seal,  circa 1000-612 BC (Wikipedia)

Valentine’s Day may have become associated with romance and love (especially the concept of courtly love) during the 14th century, due to poems from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. One poem, Parlement of Foules, associates Valentine’s Day with young lovers, as well as the mating season of birds (birds are another motif in Valentine-themed artwork.) This version of Valentine’s Day, however, may have been actually set much later than the 14th of February, quite possibly as late as March.

During the 18th-19th centuries, the tradition of sending letters to lovers on Valentine’s Day became immensely popular. In 1847, Esther Howland, a businesswoman from Massachussettes, designed the precursor to all modern-day Valentine’s cards: Her cards were specially designed with floral patterns, laces, ribbons, illustrations, etc. Eventually, the factory production of Valentine’s cards increased.

In 1868, British confectionary company Cadbury created ‘Fancy Boxes’ – chocolates in a heart-shaped container – that gave rise to the tradition of sending candies to lovers on this day.

Esther Howland Valentine card, “Affection”, circa 1870s (Wikipedia)

It is interesting to note that while a holy day in February connected to love has existed since pre-medieval times, it is only quite recently as the 19th century that the day rapidly became widespread. It is also the same time period when rapid industrialization and commercialization commenced in the Western world. Perhaps this is connected to the popularity of this holiday in the present era. So if you’re wondering what to send your significant other this Valentine’s Day, consider the history of the holiday, and send them an antique Esther Howland Valentine card or perhaps a Cadbury Fancy Box.