The Origin and Evolution of Saint Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s day is also called the Feast of Saint Valentine. It is celebrated every year on February 14th. Saint Valentine’s Day is not a public holiday in any country, although it is an official feast day in the Anglican Communion and the Lutheran Church.[1]

Origins

Christians who lived in Western Europe commemorated certain ‘holy’ people and initiated a special day for them. The Catholic Church would officially declare a certain person to be a ‘Saint’ if they met specific criteria. In the year 496 C.E. Pope Gelasius I decided that all Christians would honor the priest named Valentine of Rome who died on that day in the year 269 C.E.  He was imprisoned while trying to spread Christianity, and then was killed, so he was declared a martyr and later a saint. Saint Valentine’s day was celebrated as a feast for one thousand years by Christians.[2]

Evolution

Around the 14th century, Saint Valentine’s Day started to turn into a celebration of romance and love. Couples would express their love for each other by sending flowers, sweets, and greeting cards. Someone later wanted to connect the story of Saint Valentine to romance so they made up a story. They said that when Valentine was in prison, he sent a love letter to his jailor’s daughter and signed it “your Valentine”. The fake story became popular and people began ending their love letters with “from your valentine”.[3] The earliest surviving valentine cards are from the 15th century.

Stories like this are propagated as being factual by video producers like the History Channel and further pushed by companies like American Greetings to turn a greater profit. Another story invented later was that Valentine would cut out heart shapes from parchment and give them to persecuted Christians. This little cute lie helped establish the widespread use of hearts on Valentine’s Day.

Sometime later, Cupid joins the story. Cupid is the supposed son of the love goddess Venus and the god of war Mars. A myth is invented that any person who is shot by Cupid’s arrow is filled with uncontrollable desire. Cupid’s powers are similar, though not identical, to Kamadeva, the Hindu god of love. Cupid is shown with wings, supposedly because lovers are flighty and likely to change their minds. He is shown as a child because love is irrational. Cupid’s symbols are the arrow and torch because love wounds and inflames the heart. Although Valentine would have abhorred a false deity being associated with the day of his commemoration, as would Pope Gelasius I, Cupid nonetheless joined the celebration.

Furthermore, the romance and love that was being celebrated was usually not through the institution of marriage. Immoral practices became prevalent like men drawing the names of girls at random to couple with them. This custom was combated by priests, for example by Frances de Sales around 1600 C.E., and should be opposed by anyone who advocates for strong family values.

The Modern Era and Globalization

With the adoption of the printing press, handwritten love letters gave way to mass-produced greeting cards. By 1840, the number of valentine cards sent in the mail in England was over 400,000. In 1849, a writer in Graham’s American Monthly stated that “Saint Valentine’s Day…is becoming, nay it has become, a national holyday.” In 1868, the British chocolate company Cadbury created Fancy Boxes, a decorated box of chocolates, in the shape of a heart for Valentine’s Day. Boxes filled with chocolates quickly became associated with the day.

Today, in the UK, about half the population buys gifts for Valentine’s day, with £1.9 billion spent in 2015 alone. In America, the U.S. Greeting Card Association estimates that approximately 190 million valentines are sent each year.[4] In the United States, a Hallmark holiday is a celebration that exists mainly for commercial purposes. The name comes from Hallmark Cards, a privately owned American company, which profits from manufactured holidays through sales of greeting cards and other items. While the Hallmark corporation maintains it “can’t take credit for creating holidays”, the spread of this culture to other parts of the world often takes place in a similar manner.

Take Japan as a case in point. Valentine’s Day was introduced into the country by Morozoff Ltd in 1953 by promoting the idea that Japanese people should give heart shaped chocolates on that day. Other companies began to compete and promoted the same idea. It was adopted into the culture and now chocolate confectioneries make 70% of their business through Valentine’s Day annually. There was one major problem though: the initial advertising focused on women giving the chocolate to men. Within a few years the tradition caught on and many women felt obliged to give chocolates to their male co-workers. The gift became known as a giri-choko (義理チョコ), which means ‘obligation-chocolate’. The practice has been severely criticized for pressuring women to buy chocolate for their co-workers to avoid offending them. The situation got so bad that even a prominent competitor in 2018, Godiva Chocolatier, also criticized the practice of giving giri-choco with a full-page advertisement, calling for workplaces to ban it entirely. This shows that there may be several harmful side-effects to an apparently innocent holiday.

Concluding Thoughts

It is important for people to understand the origin of things. It is even more important to understand the benefits and harms of different aspects of our culture. Why should someone who doesn’t accept Valentine of Rome as a saint celebrate a day about him, even if the holiday evolved? Why would someone who rejects idolatry celebrate a day where Cupid, who is supposed to be a god, is assumed to play some role? Why allow corporations that primarily care about profits rather than the welfare of people to introduce and define important aspects of our culture? Why promote interesting, yet untrue, stories and pass them off as fact just to sell ‘history documentaries’ or greeting cards? Why uncritically import this culture into a region where it did not exist without considering the harmful side effects?

It is fine to have fun. There could be a local day established to remind people to show love to the ones they love. It could even be a week or a month. But it should not be based on lies and should not promote the destruction of healthy family values.

[Shaykh] Mustafa Umar

[1] The Eastern Orthodox Church also celebrates Saint Valentine’s Day on July 6 in honor of Saint Valentine.

[2] The evidence linking St. Valentine’s Day and the rites of the ancient Roman purification festival of Lupercalia appears to not be very convincing.

[3] In the 1969 revision of the Roman Catholic Calendar of Saints, the feast day of Saint Valentine on February 14 was removed from the General Roman Calendar and relegated to particular (local or even national) calendars for the following reason: “Though the memorial of Saint Valentine is ancient, it is left to particular calendars, since, apart from his name, nothing is known of Saint Valentine except that he was buried on the Via Flaminia on February 14.” Since people love stories, many different ones were later invented about Valentine but contemporary records of who Valentine really was and what really happened were probably destroyed during the Great Persecution in 303 C.E.

[4] When the valentine-exchange cards made in school activities are included the figure goes up to 1 billion since it became part of the culture that students are encouraged to give one to their teachers.