Valentine’s Day origins: why do we celebrate and who invented it?

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  • Today we celebrate Valentine’s Day with bunches of red roses, but the origins of Valentine’s Day suggest it’s a much darker celebration. 

    With its roots reaching back to hundreds of years before Saint Valentine was walking around Rome, this day of love is one of the oldest celebrations in Europe. Now we have Valentine’s Day gifts for her and Valentine’s Day hampers, but back then it was all about prancing naked through the streets and animal sacrifice. It’s a day that’s changed so much over time that many of us wouldn’t recognise the real origins of Valentine’s Day. 

    So who invented Valentine’s Day – and why do we still celebrate it in 2022? 

    What are the origins of Valentine’s Day?

    Valentine’s Day originated in the 6th century BC and comes from the Lupercalia festival, a pagan celebration of fertility that occurred on February 15 in Rome every year. Members of the Luperci priesthood would sacrifice goats and a dog on the auspicious Palatine Hill, before giving skins of the animals to men who would run around the city naked and strike the women who came up to them. This was supposed to promote fertility among the young population. 

    Later on in the festival, as the Valentine’s Day origins story goes, the women would come together and place their names in a huge urn. The city’s eligible unmarried men would then take turns choosing a name at random. Whoever they chose would be their partner for the year – with many of these match-makings often ending in marriage. 

    It’s only in the 3rd century AD that the man who would later become Saint Valentine was executed by Roman Emperor Claudius II. While there are many legends about him and others with the same name, it’s widely believed that Claudius sent Valentine to prison for helping loved-up Christian couples get married at a time when it was forbidden. 

    During his time in prison, Valentine tutored a young blind woman called Julia who was the daughter of his jailer. The story goes that God restored Julia’s sight after the two prayed together. And on the evening before his execution, Valentine wrote a note to her and signed it with, “From your Valentine.” 

    Despite the multiple legends around this man and others like him, the Catholic Church declared this Valentine a saint and listed him as a martyr on February 14 – aka. St Valentine’s Day. 

    But it wasn’t originally a holiday for celebrating love. That meaning came another couple of hundred years later with English poet Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem Parliament of Fowls, written in the 14th century. It describes a gathering of birds in early spring time, “on seynt valentynes day”, and so the day then was made about love.

    Why do we celebrate Valentine’s Day?

    While Valentine’s Day origins suggest celebrating to remember St Valentine, many non-religious people see February 14 as the day to show love to their romantic partners. This often comes about through sweeping declarations via Valentine’s Day cards, gifts, chocolates and candlelit dinners.

    Those more cynical say Valentine’s Day has turned into a marketing technique by everyone from flower stores to clothing brands to sell products. Alongside Christmas and Halloween, Valentine’s Day is one of the biggest opportunities for marketing every year.

    In 2020, couples and friends were apart because of the pandemic and online shopping was at a high. Sales in the US over this one day were upwards of $26 billion. In comparison, according to statistics from Statista.com, Halloween brought in just $8 billion over the same time frame.

    Who invented Valentine’s Day?

    Pope Gelasius I technically invented Valentine’s Day in AD 496 when he established The Feast of Saint Valentine, in memory of the martyred saint who died on that day over 200 years before. The first known link between Valentine’s Day and coupledom was February 14 1400 though. This was when King Charles V of France created La cour amoureuse (the High Court of Love) in Paris. Entirely run by women, the court met to deal with marriage contracts, infidelity, divorce and domestic violence.

    But the Valentine’s Day we know today, with the cards and chocolates, really started as late as 1985. This was when Hallmark launched their Valentine’s Day adverts in the US, claiming themselves as “The Valentine’s Store”. The video shows off all the cards and heart-shaped gifts that customers could buy in store.

    If you’re watching television over Valentine’s Day week this year, you’ll see similar ones from across the whole retail spectrum.

    How do we celebrate Valentine’s Day?

    Most people celebrate Valentine’s Day by declaring their love for a romantic partner – whether for the first time or not. This gesture is traditionally accompanied by big bunches of red roses, special Valentine’s Day cards, and heart-shaped boxes of chocolates and Valentine’s Day cakes among other presents.

    Valentine’s Day is also one of the busiest days of the year for restaurant reservations. Coming second only to Mother’s Day, couples are always keen to dine out over candlelight. According to research from the National Restaurant Association (NRA) in the US, 1 in 4 Americans make a booking for dinner over week of Valentine’s Day. And 51% of these say they choose the big day itself for the special meal.

    While some choose to go out, others opt for a night on the sofa with the best Valentine’s Day movies. Everyone has their favourite but stats from Finder.com show that popular ones around the world include The Fault in Our Stars (2014), Love Rosie (2014) and the classic Titanic (1998), of course.

    Over Valentine’s Day week, companies will often release limited-edition treats – like the controversial M&S Love Nut Yumnut last year – and supermarkets offer up special Valentine’s Day “dine in for two” deals.

    Female couple sitting on a sofa watch a film on television

    Some people choose to stay in and watch a film on Valentine’s Day, Credit: Getty

    Is Valentine’s Day only for couples?

    No, Valentine’s Day doesn’t only have to be celebrated by couples. When Valentine’s cards went over to the US from England in the 1800s, they were for romantic partners and friends. 

    Various traditions around the world also include non-romantic love in Valentine’s celebrations. In Finland, people celebrate Ystavanpaiva (Friend’s Day) on February 14. While in Mexico, the day is called Dia del amor y la amistad. This means the day of love and friendship.

    In recent years, the days leading up to the day have been nicknamed to celebrate various other kinds of love. For example, there’s “Galentine’s Day” on February 13 which, according to Urban Dictionary, is when groups of female friends (single or not) get together to share their platonic love for each other. 

    15 fun facts about Valentine’s Day

    1. Over 145 million Valentine’s Day cards are sent in the US every year, according to Hallmark.
    2. Many countries around the world celebrate Valentine’s Day – but especially the UK, US, Canada, Mexico, France Australia, Denmark and Italy.
    3. Cupid, the winged cherub often associated with Valentine’s Day, is the mythical son of Venus – goddess of love.
    4. There is a town in Texas, USA called Valentine and as of 2018, it had a population of 125 people.
    5. The average American spent $165 on Valentine’s Day gifts in 2021.
    6. Henry VIII made Valentine’s Day an official holiday in England in 1537.
    7. Bay leaves were thought to bring good luck to women on Valentine’s Day during Victorian times.
    8. In the Middle Ages, men and women wore the name of their Valentine on their jacket so everyone could see. This is where we get the phrase “wear your heart on your sleeve” from.
    9. The heart only became associated with feelings of love during the 14th century when artists included the symbol in paintings.
    10. Research from the University of Rochester found that men consider women to be more attractive when wearing red, the colour typically associated with the holiday.
    11. Thousands of people send letters to Verona, Italy for Juliet – from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – every year.
    12. 43% of millennials see Valentine’s Day as the best day to get engaged, research from diamond retailer James Allen says.
    13. 16% of flowers bought by women on Valentine’s Day were for themselves, the Society of American Florists revealed in 2019.
    14. Alexander Graham Bell, who invented the telephone, applied for a patent for his invention on Valentine’s Day 1876.
    15. Writers of Parks and Recreation invented the phrase “Galentine’s Day” in 2010.