While it may be tempting to think of Valentine’s Day as just a holiday meant for indulging in sugary impulses, this day of heart-shaped festivity actually has an interesting history. While today we celebrate Valentine’s Day with DIY Valentine’s Day cards, gifts of jewelry or flowers, and romantic Valentine’s Day dinners, the history of the holiday is actually quite surprising.
The day is named for St. Valentine, but who is this mysterious Valentine? It’s possible that the holiday is based on a combination of two men. There were two Valentines executed on February 14 by Emperor Claudius II. It’s believed that the Catholic Church may have established St. Valentine’s Day to honor these men. It’s possible that one of these men, Saint Valentine of Terni, had been secretly officiating weddings for Roman soldiers against the emperor’s wishes.
Another story involves the practice of writing love letters to your Valentine. It’s said that St. Valentine wrote the first “valentine” greeting to a young girl he tutored and fell in love with while he was imprisoned. Before his death, he wrote her a letter signed “From your Valentine,” a commonly used phrase to this day.
Have you ever wondered how some of our traditions for Valentine’s Day started? The Valentine’s Day tradition of giving a box of candy was started in the 19th century by Richard Cadbury, part of a British chocolate manufacturing family. With a new technique established at the company to create more varieties of chocolate, Cadbury pounced on the opportunity to sell the chocolates as part of the holiday.
The iconic chalky heart-shaped candies that have been passed out every Valentine’s Day started out as lozenges. Pharmacist Oliver Chase created a machine that would quickly create the lozenges before switching to using the machine to create candy. His brother came up with the idea to print messages on the candy in 1866, and the candies got their heart shape in 1901.
The chubby baby with wings and a bow and arrow that we call Cupid has been associated with Valentine’s Day for centuries. However, before he was renamed Cupid, he was known to the ancient Greeks as Eros, the god of love and the son of the Greek goddess Aphrodite. He was known for shooting arrows at both gods and humans, causing them to fall instantly in love with one another.
The idea of using a kiss to sign off on Valentine’s also has a long history. The use of “X” came to represent Christianity, or the cross, in the Middle Ages. During this time, the symbol was used to sign off on documents. After marking with an X, the writer would often kiss the mark as a sign of their oath. As the gesture grew among kings and commoners to certify books, letters, and paperwork, these records were described as having been “sealed with a kiss.”
The term “wearing your heart on your sleeve” may have origins in picking a valentine. During the Middle Ages, men would draw the names of women who they would be coupled with for the upcoming year while attending a Roman festival. After choosing, the men wore the names on their sleeves to show their bond during the festivities.
By the early 1910s, an American company that would become Hallmark began distributing its more official “Valentine’s Day cards.” Flowers, candy, jewelry, and more followed, and the rest, of course, is history.