Valentine's Day

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Saint Valentine's Day

Saint Valentine's Day, Western European Christian holiday, originally the Roman feast of Lupercalia. It was christianized in memory of the martyrdom of St. Valentine in A.D. 270, who, in medieval times, came to be associated with the union of lovers under conditions of duress. The holiday is celebrated on Feb. 14th by the exchange of romantic or comic verse messages called “valentines.” The first commercial valentine greeting cards produced in the United States were created in the 1840s by Esther A. Howland. Today millions of such cards are sold annually.
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Valentine's Day

Type of Holiday: Folkloric
Date of Observation: February 14
Where Celebrated: Primarily Britain and the United States, although Valentine's Day was at one time celebrated widely in Italy, France, Austria, Hungary, Germany, and Spain
Symbols and Customs: Cupid, Heart and Arrow, Lovebirds, Valentine Cards
Colors: Valentine's Day is associated with red and white-the colors of blood and milk, both of which were central to the ancient Roman Lupercalia. Because it is the color of the human heart, red is a symbol of warmth and feeling. White stands for purity; some think that the bridal veil was the inspiration for the white lace traditionally used on VALENTINE CARDS . White is also a symbol of faith-in this case, the faith between two lovers.
Related Holidays: Candlemas, Lupercalia, Sweetest Day


What is known as Valentine's Day descended from the ancient Roman celebration known as the LUPERCALIA, held on February 15. Although it started out as a fertility ritual, the Lupercalia quickly took on the character of a lovers' holiday. Roman boys chose their partners for the celebration by drawing girls' names from a box or urn; then the couple would exchange gifts on the day of the festival. When the Roman armies invaded what is now France and Britain, they brought their Lupercalia customs with them-including the drawing of names for partners or sweethearts. But the advent of Christianity in the fourth century necessitated putting a Christian face on what was essentially a pagan celebration. So in 469 C . E ., Pope Gelasius set aside February 14 to honor St. Valentine, a young Roman who was martyred by Emperor Claudius II on this day in 270 C . E . for refusing to give up Christianity. Because of the proximity of the two dates, many customs associated with the Lupercalia were carried over to the Feast of St. Valentine.

One legend describes St. Valentine as a third-century priest who defied the Roman emperor's ban on marriages and engagements by marrying young people in secret and who was eventually arrested and put to death. Another story tells of a man named Valentine who was imprisoned for helping Christians who were being persecuted. While serving time in jail, he converted the jailer and his family to Christianity and restored the sight of the jailer's blind daughter, with whom he fell in love. On the morning of his execution, he sent her a farewell message signed, "From your Valentine."

There was a spring festival observed in Italy during the Middle Ages at which young people gathered in groves and gardens to listen to love poetry and romantic music. Afterward, they would pair off and stroll among the trees and flowers. Similar pairing-off customs were popular in France as well, but they often led to hard feelings and trouble, and were finally banned in 1776. Valentine's Day customs survived, however, in the British Isles, where young men were drawing names for "valentines" or sweethearts for centuries after the departure of the Roman armies. In England, young people played a popular game in which they would write down the names of all the young women on pieces of paper, roll them up tightly, and place them in a bowl. The young men, blindfolded, would then take turns drawing a name from the bowl. The girl whose name was drawn would be that boy's "Valentine" for the coming year.

Because it occurs seven weeks after the WINTER SOLSTICE and marks the progression from winter to spring, mid-February has traditionally been regarded as a time of fertility. In the Middle Ages, it was said that birds chose their mates on February 14 (see LOVEBIRDS ). This was also the day on which Groundhog Day was originally observed (see CANDLEMAS), heralding the approach of spring.



Cupid, the Roman god of love, is a favorite symbol for VALENTINE CARDS , party decorations, and candy boxes. He was originally depicted as a young man carrying a bow and a quiver full of arrows. Over the years, Cupid's form was gradually altered, and the handsome youth of ancient mythology became a pudgy baby. This transformation of a god who was said to have sharpened his arrows on a grindstone whetted with blood to a helpless infant got a boost during the Victorian era, when merchants were eager to promote Valentine's Day as a holiday more suitable for women and children.

Cupid was the son of Venus, the Roman goddess of love and beauty. To the Romans, he was a symbol of passionate, playful, or tender love. His arrows were invisible, and his victims, who included gods as well as humans, would not be aware that they had been shot until they suddenly fell in love.

Heart and Arrow

A red or pink heart pierced by an arrow is the best known and most enduring symbol of Valentine's Day. It can be seen in VALENTINE CARDS and decorations as well as in candies, cookies, and cakes served on this day. The heart itself symbolizes vulnerability as well as love: By sending someone a Valentine, one is taking a risk that he or she will be rejected. The arrow that pierces the heart is a symbol of death and the vulnerability of the unprotected heart. Together, the heart and the arrow also represent the merging of the male and female principles.

As early as the twelfth century, the heart was considered the seat of love and affection. But the conventional heart shape, which is symmetrical and tapers to a point at the bottom, doesn't look anything like a real heart. Some scholars speculate that it was designed by a casual doodler to represent the human buttocks, a female torso with prominent breasts, or even the imprint that a woman wearing lipstick makes when she presses her lips against a piece of paper.

In the early 1800s, young British and American men sometimes wore slips of paper with their girlfriends' names written on them pinned to their sleeves for several days, thus giving rise to the expression "to wear one's heart on one's sleeve."

In the United States, the American Heart Association holds its "Save a Sweet Heart" program during Valentine's week. It is an anti-smoking campaign that uses the symbol of the heart to educate high school students about the health risks involved in smoking.


The popular medieval folk belief that birds chose their mates on February 14 made doves a favorite symbol for VALENTINE CARDS . The dove was sacred to Venus and other love deities and had a reputation for choosing a lifelong mate. Known for their "billing and cooing," doves have long been a symbol of romantic love.

When printed Valentines first began to appear, many of them featured lovebirds. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, some even had a stuffed hummingbird or bird of paradise mounted on a satin cushion. The lovebirds that appear on today's Valentines are usually tiny parrots with brilliant feathers. In the wild, they are known for living in pairs and keeping to themselves, much like couples in love.

Valentine Cards

The custom of exchanging love notes on Valentine's Day can be traced back to the ancient Roman LUPERCALIA, when boys drew the names of girls from a box and escorted the girl whose name they had drawn to the festival. The Christian church tried to downplay the holiday's sexual aspects by initiating the custom of drawing saints' names from a box. The participants would then be expected to emulate the saint whose name they had drawn for the rest of the year. Needless to say, the idea never really caught on, and Valentine's Day remains an occasion for exchanging love messages.

One of the first Valentine cards was created by Charles, Duke of Orleans. Imprisoned in the Tower of London for several years following the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, he sent Valentine poems to his wife in France from his jail cell. Commercially made Valentines didn't appear in England until almost 1800, although handmade cards had been popular for some time. In the nineteenth century, "penny dreadfuls" took the place of romantic Valentines. These were insulting and sometimes cruel cards, meant to be funny and usually sent anonymously.

In America, handmade Valentines began to appear around 1740. They were sealed with red wax and left secretly on a lover's doorstep or sent by mail. They were often quite elaborate, with cutout or pinprick designs resembling lace. Another popular handmade Valentine was the "puzzle purse," which had verses hidden within its folds that had to be read in a certain order. Commercially made cards began to take over in the 1880s.

"Valentine" meant the person whose name was picked from the box, or who was chosen to be one's sweetheart, by 1450. By 1533, it meant the folded piece of paper with the name on it; by 1610 it referred to a gift given to the special person; and by 1824 it referred to the verse, letter, or message sent to that person. Some say that the word "Valentine" doesn't come from St. Valentine at all, but rather from the Old French galantine, meaning "a lover or gallant."


Barth, Edna. Hearts, Cupids, and Red Roses: The Story of the Valentine Symbols. New York: Seabury Press, 1974. Buday, George. The History of the Christmas Card. 1971. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1991. Gaer, Joseph. Holidays Around the World. Boston: Little, Brown, 1953. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Ickis, Marguerite. The Book of Festivals and Holidays the World Over. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1970. Purdy, Susan. Festivals for You to Celebrate. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1969. Santino, Jack. All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994. Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995. Tuleja, Tad. Curious Customs: The Stories Behind 296 Popular American Rituals. New York: Harmony, 1987.


Library of Congress
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Valentine's Day

February 14
St. Valentine is believed to have been a Roman priest who was martyred on this day around 270. How he became the patron saint of lovers remains a mystery, but one theory is that the Church used the day of St. Valentine's martyrdom in an attempt to Christianize the old Roman Lupercalia, a pagan festival held around the middle of February. Part of the ancient ceremony entailed putting girls' names in a box and letting the boys draw them out. Couples would thus be paired off until the following year. The Church substituted saints' names for girls' names, in the hope that the participant would model his life after the saint whose name he drew. But by the 16th century, it was once again girls' names that ended up in the box. Eventually the custom of sending anonymous cards or messages to those one admired became the accepted way of celebrating St. Valentine's Day .
Valentine's Day has been the occasion for such events as underwater weddings and "kiss-ins" and "hug-ins"—in 1999, about 3,000 couples in Belarus attempted to set a new world record for the largest kiss-in (previously held by 1,600 couples in Spain); in 2002 more than 1,000 students and teachers at a South African high school went for the world's biggest hug-in.
AmerBkDays-2000, p. 139
BkDays-1864, vol. I, p. 255
BkFest-1937, p. 15
DaysCustFaith-1957, p. 54
DictFolkMyth-1984, p. 866
FestSaintDays-1915, p. 34
FolkAmerHol-1999, p. 76
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 174
OxYear-1999, pp. 76, 77
SaintFestCh-1904, p. 103
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
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