Public domain photo
Romance and flowers: An early-20th century Valentine’s Day card.
Public domain photo Romance and flowers: An early-20th century Valentine’s Day card.

To some it’s a commercial rip-off, to others it’s a day for celebration and romance.

There’s no denying Valentine’s Day evokes strong emotions amongst us, but what was its origins before the days of chocolates and over-priced red roses?

In ancient Rome, February 13-15 were known as Lupercalia, a pagan fertility festival.

According to Noel Lenski, a classics professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, naked young men would whip young women to try to improve their fertility — hardly the most romantic of gestures.


St Valentine’s Day itself appears to have begun as a celebration of the early Christian saint Valentinus.

According to legend, Saint Valentine was jailed for performing weddings for Roman soldiers who were forbidden to marry, and for ministering to Christians, at around 270 AD.

Valentine of Rome is then said to have restored the sight of the blind daughter of his jailer, Asterius.

Before his execution, as a Christian martyr, it is claimed he wrote her a farewell note, ‘From your Valentine’. He is said to have died on February 14.

Hundreds of years later, in the late fifth century, Pope Gelasius declared the day as the Christian feast day, St Valentine’s Day.

It is thought this was a move by the Pope to end the pagan ritual of Lupercalia.

It was not until the Middle Ages, in the 14th century, that Valentine’s Day started to grow in popularity.

In England and France, February 14 was seen as the start of the mating season for birds, and therefore a time for romance and affection.

In 1382, English writer and poet Geoffrey Chaucer wrote Parlement of Foules, linking St Valentine’s Day to romantic love.

Chaucer wrote: “For this was on seynt Volantynys day,

Whan euery bryd (every bird) comyth there to chese (choose) his make (mate).”

The poem was penned in honour of the first anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II to Anne of Bohemia.

The earliest surviving valentine is reportedly a 15-century Rondeau by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife, after his capture at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 and imprisonment in the Tower of London.

William Shakespeare also referenced Valentine’s Day in Hamlet (1600-01).

In Act IV, Scene Five, Ophelia says: “To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,

All in the morning betime,

And I a maid at your window,

To be your Valentine…”

In 1797, a British publisher issued The Young Man’s Valentine Writer, containing sentimental verses for young lovers.

Printers had started producing cards with verses and sketches, and by the early nineteenth century, paper Valentines had become highly popular in England. Some were even made with lace and ribbons.

The modern-day St Valentine’s Day however, was really invented  in the 1840s.

In 1849, writer Leigh Eric Schmidt declared in Graham’s American Monthly: “Saint Valentine’s Day… is becoming, nay it has become, a national holyday.”

In the US, Esther Howland of Massachusetts started selling mass-produced valentines in 1847.

Consisting of embossed paper lace and floral decorations imported from England, Ms Howland was inspired after receiving an English valentine from a business associate of her father’s.


Since the 19th century, handwritten notes have dwindled, to be replaced by mass-produced greeting cards, and in the 20th century, e-cards sent over the Internet.

Up to 15 million e-valentines were estimated to have been sent in 2010.

In the UK it is estimated the population spends 1.3 billion pounds (Sterling) a year on cards, flowers, chocolates and gifts.

The US Greeting Card Association says up to 190 million valentines are sent each year in the US, but half of these are given to relatives as a token of affection.

Around the world, people celebrate Valentine’s Day in different ways.

In Finland, it is known as ‘Friend’s Day’ and is more about celebrating your friends than loved ones.

In South America, some countries also celebrate February 14 as the ‘Day of Love and Friendship’. People perform ‘acts of appreciation’ for their friends.

However, in Brazil February 14 is not celebrated due to its proximity to the Brazilian Carnival celebrations.


This has also induced many western singletons to escape here on vacation at this time.

Brazilians celebrate ‘Lovers’ Day’ on June 12 instead.

Although many women look forward to Valentine’s Day as a time of receiving chocolates, spare a thought for the women of South Korea.

There, the women give chocolate to men, and the men give non-chocolate candy to the women on March 14 — known as White Day.

If that wasn’t bad enough, on April 14 (Black Day), if you didn’t receive anything, you have to go to a restaurant to eat black noodles, in mourning at your ‘single’ status.

Japanese women also give chocolates to men, and their work colleagues. However the men are expected to return gifts at least two or three times more expensive than the gifts they received.

In India, Hindu and Islamic traditionalists consider Valentine’s Day to be abhorrent — a sign of westernization infiltrating their culture. However the day is becoming increasingly popular among Indians.

In Israel the Jewish equivalent of Valentine’s Day is celebrated in August, and is known as Tu B’Av. It is a day to propose marriage and exchange cards and flowers.

More than a billion Valentine’s cards will be sent around the world this year on February 14.

However you celebrate it, whether with a loved one or just a friend, it is a time for showing love, appreciation and affection.