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Valentine’s Day, the day of sending cards and declarations of love. But it all started with Saint Valentine, who secretly married soldiers and their girlfriends. How has the meaning of Valentine’s Day changed over time?
Saint Valentine was not always romantic
It is often difficult to say exactly how an ancient tradition originated. After all, it’s a long time ago, and legends and myths are not exactly reliable history records. What we do know is that the story of Saint Valentine secretly marrying soldiers and being executed is based in part on fiction. But fiction or not, the execution of Saint Valentine on February 14, 269 resulted in a Catholic holiday. In the year 496 AD. he was added to the calendar of saints by Pope Gelasius I. Valentine’s Day was born.
Yet it would be a long time before the execution of Saint Valentine had anything to do with romance. For that we have to fast-forward to fourteenth-century England.
The significance of Valentine’s Day: a spring celebration
February has long been seen as the beginning of spring. Birds make nests, nature blooms again, romance at its best. The connection between Saint Valentine and romance therefore seems obvious. Yet the two are not brought together for the first time until the fourteenth century. The British author Geoffrey Chaucer wrote the poem The chicken’s parliamentin which he describes how the birds choose their mate on a particular day in February.
(…) For this was on Valentine’s Day,
When each poultry comes there to its mate to take,
Of every species known, I say,
And then they made such a big crowd (…)
This poem seems to be the beginning of the romantic meaning we give Valentine’s Day today.
The court begins to send each other cards
Not long after Chaucer’s poem, members of the French and English courts begin sending each other love cards on Valentine’s Day. This custom was adopted by the mob around the seventeenth century. Giving gifts, such as gloves, also became a popular activity on Valentine’s Day.
According to the Meertens Institute, young people in the English country drew lots on Valentine’s Day. The name you drew was the person you spent the day with. Sometimes marriages happened.
Valentine’s Day becomes commercial
But why are we celebrating Valentine’s Day now with postcards and flowers? It started in America. It was there that the party really took off in the middle of the nineteenth century and took the form we know today. Brian Keith Geiger (now affiliated with the University of California, Riverside) wrote his dissertation on the party in 2007. Around 1850, Valentine’s Day was picked up by companies. They imported Valentine’s cards from England and sold products exclusively related to Valentine’s Day, including short story collections.
Especially in New York City, trade flourished around February 14th. Numerous valentine ads were published in the newspapers. The target group? young adults. It was a group that until then had often been overlooked as potential customers, they did not have much to use. That changed in the middle of the twentieth century. It became more and more common for both men and women to postpone marriage until the mid-20s. Before starting their own family, they went to school, had a job and were single for a while. The ideal group to sell valentines to.
According to the Meertens Institute, the commercial version of Love Day came into the Netherlands around 1950. The party has not become really popular here. The down-to-earth Dutch think Valentine’s Day is too commercial. But a teddy bear is much cozier than a headless saint. At least it’s something.
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