Home   Ipswich   News   Article

How the tradition of Valentine's Day started and how it was celebrated through the years




Valentine’s Day will be a stay-at-home affair this year … maybe more takeaway in front of the TV than romantic meal out.

As the country faces its first locked-down February 14 couples will have to provide their own candlelight and soft music.

Showing your love with cards, flowers, gifts and a special meal is now the accepted way of marking the day.

The first box of Valentine’s chocolates is thought to have been created by Richard Cadbury
The first box of Valentine’s chocolates is thought to have been created by Richard Cadbury

But where did the traditions start? And who was St Valentine?

The origin of Valentine’s Day is a bit of a mystery. Some believe it dates back thousands of years to the ancient Roman ritual of Lupercalia, which was held to welcome spring.

It was a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, and to the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, who in legend were reared by a she-wolf, or lupa.

A Victorian Valentine's Day card
A Victorian Valentine's Day card

One possibility is that the early Christian Church chose the same date to commemorate the martyr St Valentine to “Christian-ise” the pagan rites.

But even the identity of the original St Valentine - at least three martyrs have had that name - is not certain.

One contender was a priest in 3rd century Rome, who continued to perform marriages in defiance of the Emperor Claudius II who believed single men made better soldiers.

Valentine was beheaded for his pains.

The earliest cards were handmade and usually delivered secretly by slipping them under a door.
The earliest cards were handmade and usually delivered secretly by slipping them under a door.

Others believe the day celebrates St Valentine of Terni, a bishop also executed on the orders of Claudius, possibly for helping Christians escape from harsh Roman prisons.

It is also possible that the two Valentines stem from different accounts of the same person.

According to one legend, an imprisoned Valentine fell in love with his jailer’s daughter who he had cured of blindness.

Before his death he is said to have written her a letter signed “from your Valentine” - starting the tradition that lives on today.

The Valentine’s card did not make an appearance until the 1700s
The Valentine’s card did not make an appearance until the 1700s

But whatever Valentine’s history all the stories suggest a sympathetic, heroic and romantic figure. By the middle ages he was one of the most popular saints in England and France.

He is not only the patron saint of lovers, but also of beekeepers and epileptics.

In 496AD, Pope Gelasius declared the Feast Day of St Valentine would be on February 14, but at first it was simply a religious festival honouring a martyr.

An example of a Victorian Valentine's card
An example of a Victorian Valentine's card

It was not until many centuries later that it became associated with romantic love.

That happened in the 14th and 15th centuries when the notion of courtly love flourished.

Mid-February was also thought to be the time that birds paired up. The first recorded association is believed to be in The Parliament of Fowls (1382) by Chaucer, a dream vision portraying a parliament for birds to choose their mates.

The earliest surviving romantic comes in a love poem written by the Duke of Orleans to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. The Duke, captured during the Battle of Agincourt, uses “Valentine” as a term of endearment several times.

The rose is probably the one most strongly associated with Valentine’s Day, and different coloured blooms mean different things.
The rose is probably the one most strongly associated with Valentine’s Day, and different coloured blooms mean different things.

In the 16th century it was said that the first woman a man saw on Valentine’s Day would be his true love. Shakespeare even refers to it in a song sung by Ophelia.

By the 1660s, when Samuel Pepys wrote repeatedly of Valentine’s day in his diaries, London society treated the belief more as lighthearted fun than a search for true love.

The Valentine’s card did not make an appearance until the 1700s. These earliest cards were handmade and usually delivered secretly by slipping them under a door.

The idea of the day being celebrated by established and even married couples did not come along until later.

The art known as floriography gave a meaning to each variety of flower and a daisy signified innocence
The art known as floriography gave a meaning to each variety of flower and a daisy signified innocence

In 18th century England, it grew into an occasion when couples expressed their love for each other with flowers, sweets, and greetings cards.

York Castle Museum has what is thought to be the oldest printed Valentine’s card, produced in London in 1797. It is hand coloured, and features floral patterns, cupids, and doves, wth a lace effect created by piercing the paper.

Victorian Valentines were ornate and elegant with lace, cut paper, and beautiful full colour images, often in layers.

Today’s mass-produced cards often carry risque images and messages that would give a well-bred Victorian maiden the vapours.

The art known as floriography gave a meaning to each variety of flower and daffodil meant 'high regard'
The art known as floriography gave a meaning to each variety of flower and daffodil meant 'high regard'

But the old symbols of hearts, doves, flowers and the figure of the winged Cupid still survive.

Cupid, often portrayed as a naked cherub launching arrows at unsuspecting lovers, has his origins in Greek mythology as the god of love, Eros.

Flowers have been associated with Valentine’s Day since the 1700s. The idea was at first to use flowers as a language.

The art known as floriography gave a meaning to each variety of flower. Entire conversations could be carried on through floral arrangements.

The cover of a menu from a Valentine dinner at the Waldorf Astoria in New York
The cover of a menu from a Valentine dinner at the Waldorf Astoria in New York

There were even dictionaries to help interpret meanings. For example, a rose stood for love, a four-leaf clover meant “be mine”, a daisy signified innocence, and a daffodil, high regard.

Purple lilac was the first stirrings of love, a violet meant faithfulness, and a water lily purity of heart.

The rose is probably the one most strongly associated with Valentine’s Day, and different coloured blooms mean different things. Red roses are the lover’s rose, white ones signify humility and innocence, yellow is friendship and joy, and pink is gratitude, appreciation or admiration.

The language of flowers carried on through the Victorian era, and flourished when hushed politeness and modesty were of the utmost importance.

Victorian Valentines were ornate and elegant with lace, cut paper, and beautiful full colour images, often in layers.
Victorian Valentines were ornate and elegant with lace, cut paper, and beautiful full colour images, often in layers.

Chocolates are another Valentine’s tradition. The first box of Valentine’s chocolates is thought to have been created by Richard Cadbury who spotted a commercial opportunity in the mid 19th century.

He began putting Cupids and rosebuds on heart-shaped boxes. Even when the contents had been eaten, the boxes were so pretty people could save them to store mementoes such as love letters.

Read more: All the latest news from Suffolk