There are many rumors as to how exactly Valentine’s Day originated. Many people believe it is a holiday created purely by greeting card companies to sell flowers and chocolate. But my girlfriend assures me that is just not true, and if I believe it then I can get used to sleeping on the couch. Others murmur rumblings of Christian martyrs and Popes and love. Not together, or necessarily in that order.
When looking back historically, most people will cite Christianity as Valentine’s Day’s origins. There were numerous early Christian martyrs named Valentine, with a couple — Valentine of Rome and Valentine of Terni — honored on February 14th itself. No romantic elements arise from any of these Christian figures or their history, however.
For this was on seynt Volantynys day What euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.
The internet translates this to:
For this was Saint Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.
Written to honor the first anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II to Anne of Bohemia, Chaucer’s poem spread through England. So very romantic, even taking into account that both Richard II and Anne of Bohemia were a ripe 15 years old at the time.
On Valentine’s Day in 1400, the French established a “High Court of Love” to deal with love and betrayal, as well as violence against women. Judges at this court were selected by women based on a poetry reading. Some of these poems survive to this day, and many people consider them the first ever valentines. The oldest of which is from Duke of Orléans to his wife, which was in French and very short, so I didn’t include it here.
Fast forward a couple of hundred years to 1784. The first soon-to-be-cliché love poem is found in an English nursery rhyme compilation:
The rose is red, the violet’s blue The honey’s sweet, and so are you Thou are my love and I am thine I drew thee to my Valentine The lot was cast and then I drew And Fortune said it shou’d be you.
Isn’t that sweet?
Photo Credit: Public Domain
The transition from lovely day of expression to capitalism at its finest kicked off around 1797, when a British Publisher came out with The Young Man’s Valentine Writer, a collection of writing and verses for men who couldn’t create their own. A giant was born. By the 19th century, paper valentines had become so popular in England that they were produced in factories. Lazy men rejoiced. The first mass-produced valentines in the U.S. were produced shortly thereafter, by Esther Howland of Worcester, Massachusetts, utilizing the resources in her father’s stationary store.
Fast-forward to modern day. In the United Kingdom, 1.3 billion pounds are spent annually on cards, chocolates, flowers and hopefully awesome hot air balloon rides. The U.S. Greeting Card Association, which is apparently real, approximates that nearly 200 million valentines are sent each year, yet somehow I only accumulated three Scooby Doo valentines in third grade.