For this was on St. Valentine's Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate
— Parlement of Foules (1382) by Geoffrey Chaucer
February 14th marks the holiday of Valentine’s Day. Throughout the U.S. and in many places across the world, loved ones exchange gifts such as candy and flowers to celebrate the day.
Image courtesy of Flickr user fly
Valentine’s Day itself has its roots in an old Roman festival called Lupercalia, celebrated in the middle of February. It involved animal sacrifice and some fertility rituals. Cupid, the matchmaker with wings and a bow and arrow, also started out as the Roman God of love. Cupid is still a symbol of the day and is depicted on many modern Valentine’s Day cards.
So who was St. Valentine?
There were multiple Christian saints named Valentinus. While there are many legends surrounding them, much is unknown. According to one legend, Saint Valentine was a priest in ancient Rome in the third century A.D. who performed marriages for young lovers after the Emperor outlawed marriage. When Valentine’s secret practice was uncovered, he was sentenced to death. The legend goes on to say that Valentine fell in love with the jailer’s daughter and on the day of his death, passed her a note that said, “From your Valentine.”
Historians do not seem to have found any links between the day and romantic love until the poem by Geoffrey Chaucer about valentines in the 14th century. While the legends and what really happened are not so clear, the recognition of St. Valentine in all of them portray the saint as heroic and romantic.
Sending Valentine’s greetings originated in the Middle Ages, though written ones did not appear until the 15th Century. The first Valentine's Day card was sent in 1415 from France's Duke of Orleans to his wife when he was a prisoner in the Tower of London following the Battle of Agincourt. Americans likely began exchanging valentines in the early 18th century. Known as the “mother of the Valentine,” Esther Howland was the first to sell mass-produced valentines in the United States in the 1840s. Since then, the greeting card industry took off and Valentine’s Day is considered to be one of the most commercialized holidays in the U.S., making the day the second largest card-sending holiday of the year—with about 1 billion Valentine’s Day cards sent. Christmas is the first. Americans spend almost $20 billion on Valentine’s Day each year.
Valentine's Day in the U.S. today
Valentine’s Day has moved away from its religious past and is celebrated in the U.S. today with loved ones sending each other cards or gifts or simply spending time together, such as a romantic dinner. Children may also decorate Valentine’s Day cards for their classmates at school. About 110 million roses are sold in the U.S. every year around Valentine’s Day. Gifts also include chocolates in heart-shaped boxes or the iconic little candy hearts with written Valentine’s Day messages. There is some controversy around the holiday as some Americans believe its over-commercialization and consumerism makes people who are not in relationships feel badly and loses sight of the real meaning of the day, which should be the celebration of love.
Watch this short Valentine’s Day video
Allison joined the InterExchange team in 2011 and holds a B.A. in International Affairs and an M.A. in Higher Education. She oversees the daily operations of the Career Training USA program where she has the privilege of working with students and professionals from around the world pursuing U.S. internships and training programs. Allison is originally from Massachusetts and studied abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina.