Valentine's Day

March 17, 2015 · updated February 2, 2024

Red and White Roses
Bouquet of red and white roses seen at South Bank, London. Garry Knight

Valentine's Day is a celebration of romantic love and (much less so) Saint Valentine, occurring annually on February 14.

Although associated with a Catholic saint, Valentine's Day is not a religious holiday and never really has been. It is primarily rooted in Greco-Roman pagan fertility festivals and the medieval notion that birds pair off to mate on February 14.

The history of exchanging cards and other tokens of love on February 14 began to develop in England and France in the 14th and 15th centuries and became especially popular in the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Over the last decade or so, Valentine's Day observance has even spread to the Far East, India, and the Middle East.

History of Valentine's Day

February Fertility Festivals

The origin of associating the middle of February with love and fertility dates to ancient times. In ancient Athens, the period between mid-January and mid-February was the month of Gamelion, which was dedicated to the sacred marriage of Zeus and Hera.

In ancient Rome, February 15 was Lupercalia, the festival of Lupercus (or Faunus), the god of fertility. As part of the purification ritual, the priests of Lupercus would sacrifice goats and a dog to the god, and after drinking wine, they would run through the streets of Rome striking anyone they met with pieces of the goat skin. Young women would come forth voluntarily for the occasion, believing that being touched by the goat skin would render them fertile. Young men would also draw names from an urn, choosing their "blind date" for the coming year. In 494 CE the Christian church under Pope Gelasius I appropriated the some aspects of the rite as the Feast of the Purification.

Who Was Saint Valentine?

In Christianity, at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of them martyrs, are mentioned in the early lives of the saints under the date of February 14. Two of the Valentines lived in Italy in the third century: one as a priest at Rome, the other as bishop of Terni. They are both said to have been martyred in Rome and buried on the Flaminian Way. A third St. Valentine was martyred in North Africa and very little else is known of him.

Several legends have developed around one or more of these Valentines, two of which are especially popular. According to one account, Emperor Claudius II outlawed marriage for all young men because he believed unmarried men made better soldiers. Valentine defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young couples and was put to death by the emperor for it. A related legend has Valentine writing letters from prison to his beloved, signing them "From your Valentine."

However, the connection between St. Valentine and romantic love is not mentioned in any early histories and is regarded by historians as purely a matter of legend. The feast of St. Valentine was first declared to be on February 14 by Pope Gelasius I around 498. It is said the pope created the day to counter the practice held on Lupercalia, but this is not attested in any sources from that era.

Valentine's Day & Romantic Love

The first recorded association of St. Valentine's Day with romantic love was in the 14th century in England and France, where it was believed that February 14 was the day on which birds paired off to mate. Thus we read in Geoffrey Chaucer's (c. 1343-1400) Parliament of Fowls, believed to be the first Valentine's Day poem:

For this was on Saint Valentine's day,
When every fowl comes there to choose his mate.

It became common during that era for lovers to exchange notes on Valentine's Day and to call each other their "Valentines."

The first known Valentine card was sent by Charles, duke of Orleans, to his wife in 1415 when he was a prisoner in the Tower of London. Valentine's Day love notes were often given anonymously. It is probable that many of the legends about Saint Valentine developed during this period.

By the 1700s, verses like "Roses are red, violets are blue" became popular. By the 1850s, romantics in France began embellishing their valentine cards with gilt paper, ribbons and lace.

Valentine's Day was probably imported into North America in the 19th century with settlers from Britain. In the United States, the first mass-produced valentines of embossed paper lace were produced and sold shortly after 1847 by Esther A. Howland (1828 - 1904) of Worcester, Massachusetts. Her father operated a large book and stationery store, and she took her inspiration from an English valentine she had received.

Valentine's Day in Modern Catholicism

In the 19th century, relics of St. Valentine were donated by Pope Gregory XVI to the Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church in Dublin, Ireland, which has become a popular place of pilgrimage on February 14.

But in 1969, as part of a larger effort to pare down the number of saint days of legendary origin, the Church removed St. Valentine's Day as an official holiday from its calendar.

Valentine's Day Customs

The primary custom associated with St. Valentine's Day is the mutual exchange of love notes called valentines. Common symbols on valentines are hearts, the colors red and pink, and the figure of the winged Cupid.

Starting in the 19th century, the practice of hand writing notes began to give way to the exchange of mass-produced greeting cards. These cards are no longer given just to lovers, but also to friends, family, classmates and coworkers. Valentine cards are often accompanied by tiny candy hearts with affectionate messages printed on them.

The Greeting Card Association estimates that approximately one billion valentine cards are sent worldwide each year, making Valentine's Day the second largest card-sending holiday of the year, behind Christmas. The association also estimates that women purchase approximately 85 percent of all valentines.

In the last 50 years or so, especially in the United States, the practice of exchanging cards has been extended to include the giving of gifts, usually from a man to his girlfriend or wife. The most popular Valentine's Day gifts are roses and chocolate. Starting in the 1980s, the diamond industry began to promote Valentine's Day as an occasion for the giving of fine jewelry. Many couples also schedule a romantic dinner date on Valentine's Day.

Valentine's Day Around the World

Valentine's Day is primarily celebrated in the west but it has begun to spread further east in recent decades — with mixed results.

Valentine's Day in Japan

Thanks to a concentrated marketing effort, Valentine's Day has emerged in Japan as a day on which women give chocolates to men they like.

This has become for many women – especially those who work in offices – an obligation, and they give chocolates to all their male co-workers (especially the boss), sometimes at significant personal expense. This chocolate is known as giri-choco, "chocolate of obligation."

By a further marketing effort, a reciprocal day called White Day has emerged in Japan. On this day (March 14), men are supposed to return the favor by giving something to those who gave them chocolates on Valentine's Day. Many men, however, give only to their girlfriends. The gift should be white (hence the name) and is often lingerie.

Valentine's Day in China

Valentine's Day is also celebrated in China, as is the related Daughter's Festival. It is held on the 7th month and 7th day of the lunar calendar and celebrates a love story between the seventh daughter of the Emperor of Heaven and an orphaned cowherd, who were sent to separate stars and only allowed to see each other on this one day each year. The next Daughter's Festival will be on August 11, 2005.

Valentine's Day in India

Valentine's Day only arrived in India quite recently, but it has quickly gained popularity among young urban people along with a great deal of controversy among conservative Hindus. Traditional Hindu culture discourages public displays of affection between the sexes, including hand-holding, which Valentine's Day encourages, and Valentine's Day is also resented by some as a Christian and western influence.

In 2004, militant Hindu nationalists threatened to beat the faces and shave the heads of those who participated in Valentine's Day customs. "We will not allow westernization of Indian culture as St. Valentine was a Christian and celebrating Valentine's Day would be a violation of Indian culture," said Ved Prakash Sachchan, of the militant Hindu organization Bajrang Dal, in Uttar Pradesh. Similarly, a leader of the radical Hindu group Shiv Sena has condemned the holiday as "nothing but a Western onslaught on India's culture to attract youth for commercial purposes." Members of the group have stolen Valentine's Day greeting cards from a store and ceremonially burned them.

Valentine's Day in the Middle East

Similar Valentine's Day backlash has occurred in many Muslim countries. In Pakistan in 2004, the Jamaat-e-Islami party, an Islamist organization, called for a ban on Valentine's Day. One of its leaders dismissed it as "a shameful day" when Westerners "are just fulfilling and satisfying their sex thirst."

Also in 2004, the government of Saudi Arabia issued an edict declaring that "there are only two holidays in Islam - Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha - and any other holidays... are inventions which Muslims are banned from." Police closely monitored stores selling roses and some women were arrested for wearing red.

Despite this official opposition from authorities, many people in Middle Eastern countries seem to be enjoying the new holiday. One shopper, buying a red heart-and-rose card for her son-in-law, is reported as having dismissed the backlash as "only rigidity and cultural backwardness. Through the crackdown, they only buy people's greater hatred and enmity."