All around the world, Valentine’s Day, or St Valentine’s Day, is celebrated on the 14th February.
It’s the day when people typically show their affection for another person (or people) by sending cards, flowers or chocolates with messages of love. In a leap year, Valentine’s Day allows for one more anomaly – every four years, women can propose marriage to their partner.
But just who was St. Valentine and why do we still honour his legacy? He was a famous saint, but the actual stories surrounding him have yet to be corroborated. The issue being that there were three potential Valentine’s who’s legacy we could be honouring, and rather astonishingly, all three were said to have been martyred on 14th February. The most popular belief, though, is that he was a Roman priest in 300 AD, who married couples in secret after the then emperor, Emperor Claudius II, banned marriage, as he believed married men made bad soldiers. When the emperor found out, he had Valentine thrown in jail and sentenced to death. There, so the legend goes, Valentine fell in love with the jailer’s daughter, and when he was taken to be killed on the 14th February, he sent her a love letter signed ‘from your Valentine’.
How did Valentine’s Day, as we know and celebrate it, start? It is a very old tradition, thought to originally be a Roman fertility festival (known as Lupercalia) in the middle of February (around 15th February), to officially kick start the season of spring. At this festival, it is thought that boys drew the name of a girl from a box. They’d be boyfriend and girlfriend during the festival and sometimes afterwards, they’d get married. Later on, when the church was deciding what pagan festivals to keep and which to discard, they wanted to turn this festival into a Christian celebration, and so decided to use it to remember St. Valentine at the same time. Gradually the two stories combined and St. Valentine’s name was used by people to express their love for others.
It was not until the 14th century that this Christian feast day actually became associated with love. According to UCLA medieval scholar Henry Ansgar Kelly, author of Chaucer and the Cult of Saint Valentine, it was Chaucer who first linked St. Valentine’s Day with romance. Sadly in 1969, the Catholic Church revised its liturgical calendar, removing the feast days of saints whose historical origins were questionable. St. Valentine was one of the casualties.
In the 18th century, gift-giving and exchanging handmade cards on Valentine’s Day had become commonplace in England, this tradition soon spread to the American colonies, but it did not become widespread in the US until 1850s, when cards started being mass produced. In the US now, the giving of chocolates, hearts and stuffed animals are all standard fare, but not every country follows suit:
Denmark – Although a relatively new tradition in Denmark (celebrated since the early 1990s), rather than roses, friends and sweethearts exchange pressed white flowers called snowdrops. Men also give women gaekkebrev, a ‘joking letter’ consisting of a funny poem or rhyme written on intricately cut paper and signed only with anonymous dots. If a woman who receives the gaekkebrev can correctly guess the sender, she earns herself an Easter egg later that year.
France – Paris is considered one of the most romantic cities in the world and so it’s little wonder France has long celebrated Valentine’s Day as a day for lovers. Today, Valentine’s Day cards remain a popular tradition in France as around the world.
South Korea – Valentine’s Day is a popular holiday for young couples in South Korea, and variations of the holiday are celebrated monthly from February through April. The gift-giving starts on 14th February, when it’s up to women to woo their men with chocolates, sweets and flowers. The tables turn on 14th March, a holiday known as White Day, when men not only shower their sweethearts with chocolates and flowers, but up the ante with a gift.
Wales – You won’t find the Welsh celebrating St. Valentine. Instead, people in Wales celebrate St. Dwynwen, the Welsh patron saint of lovers, on 25th January. One traditional romantic Welsh gift is a love spoon. As early as the 17th century, Welsh men carved intricate wooden spoons as a token of affection for the women they loved. Today, love spoons are also exchanged for celebrations such as weddings, anniversaries and births.
Philippines – While Valentine’s Day celebrations in the Philippines are similar to celebrations in Western countries, one tradition has swept the country and led to thousands of couples sharing a wedding day on 14th February. Mass wedding ceremonies have gained popularity in the Philippines in recent years, leading hundreds of couples to gather at malls or other public areas around the country to get married or renew their vows en masse.
South Africa – Like many parts of the world, South Africa celebrates Valentine’s Day with festivals, flowers and other tokens of love. It’s also customary for women in South Africa to wear their hearts on their sleeves on 14th February; women pin the names of their love interest on their shirtsleeves, similar to the ancient Roman tradition of Lupercalia.