25 Million Messages of Love

Saturday, February 9, 2019


That’s right, in recent years, we have sent 25 million Valentine’s card in the UK. There is no reason we are not going to do the same this year. But where does it all come from and why do we do it?

Well the history of Valentine's Day, from its pre-Christian origins, involving nudity and whipping, to its present incarnation as a commercial free-for-all driving huge sales of chocolate, flowers and jewellery.

In ancient Rome, 13, 14 and 15 February were celebrated as Lupercalia, a pagan fertility festival. This seems to be the basis for a celebration of love on this date. It was marked in a subtly different way in those days, however. According to Noel Lenski, classics professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, speaking in the National Geographic, young men would strip naked and use goat- or dog-skin whips to spank the backsides of young women [supposedly] in order to improve their fertility

Sometime later, around 200 AD, Valentine of Terni is martyred in the reign of Emperor Aurelian. Little is known of his life, except that he was made Bishop of Interamna (now Terni) and died not too long after. He was apparently imprisoned, tortured and beheaded on the Via Flaminia in Rome. According to legend, he died on 14 February, but that is likely a later embellishment.

We then move to around 290 AD when Valentine of Rome, is martyred, this time under Emperor Claudius. A priest or bishop in the city, he was apparently arrested and while in jail, converted his Jailer to Christianity and is said to have fallen in love with his daughter, sending her a note saying “From your Valentine”, but this is apocryphal. In yet another, equally unlikely version, Claudius was claimed to have banned young men from marrying, so that they would make better soldiers, and Valentine was arrested for secretly carrying out weddings. Like his earlier namesake, Valentine of Rome is supposed to have died on 14 February, but – again – this is implausible. 

There are not a lot of records around ‘Valentines’ until circa 500 AD. The then Pope, Gelasius, declared 14 February to be St Valentine's Day, a Christian feast day. This is likely to have been an if-you-can't-beat-them-join-them approach to the still-popular pagan festival of Lupercalia.

Then to AD 1382 when Geoffrey Chaucer writes his Parlement of Foules (or “Parliament of Fowls”), which is widely taken to be the first linking of St Valentine's Day to romantic love. Celebrating the engagement of Richard II of England and Anne of Bohemia, he wrote: “For this was on St. Valentine's Day/ When every fowl cometh there to choose his mate.” However, it is thought that this may have referred to 2 May, the saint's day in the liturgical calendar of Valentine of Genoa – this would be a more likely time for birds to be mating in England.

On St Valentine's Day in 1400, a court is opened in Paris, the High Court of Love, dealing with affairs of the heart: marriage contracts, divorces, infidelity, and beaten spouses. A few years later, Charles, the Duke of Orleans (a Frenchman, inevitably) writes the first recorded Valentine's note to his beloved, while imprisoned in the Tower of London following capture at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.

St Valentine's Day entered the popular consciousness around 1600 to the extent that William Shakespeare mentions it in Ophelia's lament in Hamlet: “To-morrow is Saint Valentine's day,/All in the morning betime,/And I a maid at your window,/To be your Valentine.”

The passing of love-notes becomes popular in England, a precursor to the St Valentine's Day card as we know it today. Early ones are made of lace and paper. In 1797, the The Young Man’s Valentine Writer is published, suggesting appropriate rhymes and messages, and as postal services became more affordable, the anonymous St Valentine's Day card became possible. By the early 19th century, they become so popular that factories start to mass-produce them.

The commercialisation has continued ever since: noting the sales effect of the holiday on chocolate, perfumes, flowers and cards, even the diamond industry gets involved heavily promoting St Valentine's Day.

Whatever your thoughts, we all like to feel a little love each day so let’s be sure to tell our loved ones how special they are.