We celebrate Valentine’s Day in order to express our love through pink hearts, candy, red roses, and a loved-up card– but the true history of the holiday isn’t as sweet. Originating as a pagan ritual for fertility, Valentine’s Day has evolved throughout centuries worth of martyrdom, religious politics, beheadings, and industrialization to become the holiday we now associate with love.
Every February 14, across the United States and in other places around the world, candy, flowers, and gifts are exchanged between loved ones, all in the name of St. Valentine. But who is this mysterious saint, and where did these traditions come from?
While the exact origins of Valentine’s Day remain murky, some historians consider the Ancient Roman feast Lupercalia, held from February 13 to 15, the holiday’s earliest iteration. During the festivities, Roman priests sacrificed a goat and a dog, using strips of the animals’ hides dipped in blood to whip women in the belief that it would make them more fertile. The ritual also included a matchmaking session, with bachelors selecting the names of their “sweethearts” from an urn.
In addition to the United States, Valentine’s Day is celebrated in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Australia. In Great Britain, Valentine’s Day began to be popularly celebrated around the 17th century. By the middle of the 18th, it was common for friends and lovers of all social classes to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes, and by 1900 printed cards began to replace written letters due to improvements in printing technology. Ready-made cards were an easy way for people to express their emotions in a time when direct expression of one’s feelings was discouraged. Cheaper postage rates also contributed to an increase in the popularity of sending Valentine’s Day greetings.
Americans probably began exchanging hand-made valentines in the early 1700s. Esther A. Howland (known as “Mother of the Valentine”) began selling the first mass-produced cards in America in the 1840s and Hallmark Cards entered the scene in 1913. Today, the Greeting Card Association estimates that loved ones send approximately 145 million cards around the world every year.
The tradition of giving flowers to loved ones on Valentine’s Day originated in the 17th century when King Charles II of Sweden popularized “the language of flowers”, or attaching conversationalist meanings to different types of flowers, throughout Europe. The most traditional type for Valentine’s Day became the rose because of its association with the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite. Since then, the custom has grown with the National Retail Federation estimating that $2 billion are spent on Valentine’s Day flowers each year.
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