Valentine’s Day, also known as Saint Valentine’s Day or the Feast of Saint Valentine, is a holiday celebrated annually on February 14. Valentine’s Day is fully immersed in modern society and has been a muse of art for over eight centuries. Before the holiday was written about by The Replacements, Frank Sinatra, Dore Alpert, Bruce Springsteen, and the like, how did Valentine’s Day come to be?
Although modern cultures praise Valentine’s Day as being a holiday for people to express love with grand gestures and celebrations, it wasn’t always this way. The origins of Valentine’s Day are muddled, with some scholars contributing the ancient Roman fertility festival, Lupercalia. This festival was outlawed in the beginning of the sixth century by Pope Gelasius I, who then changed the day to honor Saint Valentine.
Others mainly contribute the transformation of Valentine’s Day to the increased use of the word between lovers, starting in 1382 when Geoffrey Chaucer penned the poem Parlement of Foules. In it, he writes, “For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.” Chaucer was referencing the mating patterns of European birds during mid-February. Soon after the poem was published, European nobility began sending love notes around this time of year.
The earliest depiction of a classic “valentine” appeared in February 1415, when the French Duke of Orléans wrote a note to his wife during his imprisonment in the Tower of London in which he affectionately calls her “my very gentle Valentine.” Over a hundred years later, Ophelia called herself Hamlet’s Valentine in Act IV, Scene 5 of Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day, All in the morning betime, And I a maid at your window, To be your Valentine.”
While Cupid is typically depicted as a small, cherub-like infant wielding a bow and arrows of love, his identity heavily borrows from the ancient Greek god, Eros. Eros was the god of love and the son of Aphrodite and Ares. Following in his mother’s footsteps, Eros was tasked with making mortals fall in love while instilling chaos. He used an enchanted bow and quiver filled with two sets of arrows: golden or leaden. If hit with a golden arrow, a person would be struck with amorous feelings toward the next person they saw. Those who were hit with a leaden arrow would be filled with hatred instead.
So how did a powerful god of love get morphed into modern Cupid? People were intimidated by the idea of Eros being powerful and controlling of mortal emotions. Around the 4th century BCE, depictions of Eros became infantilized to depict how he would only act on his mother’s wishes. When the Roman era began, they chose to bring over the most recent iteration of Eros, which depicted him as his mother’s young child.
Handwritten notes were replaced by paper valentines toward the end of the 18th century in Victorian England. After postage stamps were invented in 1840, nearly half a million cards were sent the following year. Industrialization of Valentine’s Day cards in the United States didn’t start until the mid-19th century. Inspired by English cards, Esther Howland imported paper lace and ribbons to sell at her father’s stationary shop in Massachusetts. Today, Valentine’s Day is the second largest card-sending holiday after Christmas, with nearly 200 million cards sent annually in the United States alone.
Even if you don’t have a partner to spend the day with, we hope that you can dedicate part of your day to doing something that makes you happy, whether you make your favorite meal or watch your favorite movie. No matter how you plan to spend Valentine’s Day, we hope it’s filled with all sorts of love.
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