This Valentine's Day, it's estimated we'll be giving over 18 million cards to our loved ones in the UK as well as treating them to romantic gifts, with younger people being the keenest to make an effort for the big day. On average, over 10,000 people propose and three times more couples tie the knot on 14th February than on any other weekday in the UK. But how did it all start and why do we celebrate Valentine's Day?
Beginning with a bishop (or two)
Valentine was a common name in Roman times, meaning "strong and healthy". It was also the name of several Catholic saints including a bishop who was martyred on 14th February 269 AD. Legend has it that St Valentine helped soldiers to wed in secret when the Emperor banned them from marrying, and so he was imprisoned. Another story adds that he signed a letter to his gaoler's daughter, whose blindness he cured, "from your Valentine." Although it's not clear whether these relate to the same, or different, Valentines!
A couple of hundred years later, Pope Gelasius apparently decreed that 14th February should become St Valentine's Day, displacing the older pagan festival of Lupercalia. This centred around animal blood sacrifice, whippings, promoting sex and fertility, and pairing off men and women by lottery - all of which was frowned upon by the Christians!
Should you ever wish to visit St Valentine's shrine, by the way, you can find this a lot closer to home, in a small Irish church. Here's the surprising story of St Valentine's last journey from ancient Rome to Whitefriar Street Church in the heart of Dublin. But let's return to what happened next in our romantic history ...
In the Middle Ages, Chaucer refers to Valentine's Day as being a day of love when the birds choose their mates in "The Parliament of Fowls." It was also then regarded as the first day of Spring for this reason. The British Library holds the oldest surviving Valentine letter in English, written by Margery Brews in 1477 to her "right well beloved valentine" and future husband,John Paston. Other letters from Paston family members refer to friends drawing their Valentines by lots and then giving them gifts.
Valentine's Day was made a public holiday by King Henry VIII in 1537, when he was married to his third wife (and therefore perhaps not the best example of a true romantic!). Shakespeare also refers to its romantic aspects but it's difficult to know how widely Valentine tokens and notes were given, or whether these were restricted to the aristocracy and more affluent, literate households.
It wasn't until the mid eighteenth century that handwritten Valentine notes and cards were widely sent by many people, and became an essential part of the Valentine's Day celebrations. Those needing inspiration could buy flowery sounding pamphlets like "The Gentleman's New Valentine Writer" and "The Bower of Cupid", and answers to suitors' proposals could also be supplied.
Valentine loving Victorians
The Victorians elevated Valentine's Day to the next level. In the 1840s, cards started to be mass produced and they were also cheap to send with the new Penny Post. Although more basic designs could be inexpensive, men could also spend up to a whole month's wages on lavishly designed cards! There was also a craze for "vinegar valentines", ranging from humorous to brutal, eg "because I love another, there is no hope for you" and far worse!
The "language of flowers" or floriography was very popular and suitors used cards and bouquets to signify their intentions and emotions. Daffodils represented new beginnings, lilies of the valley meant a return of happiness, and red roses of course showed love! In the 1860s, Richard Cadbury created chocolates in heart shaped boxes decorated with flowers and Cupids, which gifts could later be used to store trinkets and love letters.
And the core elements of Valentine's Day as we know it today were all in place!
Inevitably the world's most popular day for lovers has continued to become more commercialised as it's grown - but at its heart it's still a celebration of the importance of romance and the special connection between partners. It's about spending time with a loved one and possibly giving them a thoughtful gift and/or card that doesn't have to cost the earth!
And of course not all countries celebrate Valentine's Day in quite the same way - here's some interesting differences we discovered ...
Celebrating Valentine's Day (or not)
- In Japan, women give men chocolates on 14th February and on 14th March, "White Day", it's the men's turn to give chocolates to the women
- In Finland and Estonia, 14th February is "Friends Day" and all kinds of love (including friendship) is celebrated. Romantic love is still included - single Estonians can ride one of the "love buses" to meet other singles
- 14th December is National Chocolate Day in Ghana, to promote local consumption - Ghana is the second largest cocoa producer in the world
- Valentine's Day is banned in Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, parts of Indonesia and the Russian province of Belgorod
- Brazil doesn't celebrate Valentine's Day as it falls within Carnival time, but instead holds "Sweethearts' Day" on 12th June
How will you be spending Valentine's Day this year? Are you looking forward to celebrating it with your partner or is it just too commercialised for you? Are you single and you'd rather forget all about it? Or will you be celebrating "Single Awareness Day" on 15th or the newer "Galentines Day" on 13th February? Let us know in the comments box below and whatever you do on 14th February, we hope you have a lovely time!
in the meantime, if you're looking for a thoughtful and affordable token for your partner, check out our Valentine's Day Gifts collection, Like the gorgeous Large Swarovski Crystal Angel, Real Flowers Tree of Life Jewellery Set, or Fused Glass Rainbow Heart Home Craft Kit below. Or celebrate your very own Friend's Day with a treat for them (or you!) from our Friendship Gifts range.