Some people love it, some people hate it, and some people are just here for the February 15 candy sales. Before Cupid’s arrow leaves you distracted, here are 20 things you might not know about Valentine’s Day.
If you showed up in Rome on February 14 with a bouquet of roses, say, 2000 years ago, you’d probably get some confused looks. You’d be right in your assumption that you’d arrived on a holiday—in fact, Romans would have been midway through a three-day party known as the Feast of Lupercalia. But suffice it to say, roses were not involved.
Participants in the multi-day affair “were drunk. They were naked,” CU Boulder historian Noel Lenski told NPR. Oh, and did we mention that the men also sacrificed goats and dogs, then slapped women with the hides? The practice was supposed to aid fertility. The jury’s still out on whether being presented with a box of heart-shaped chocolates or being whipped with the skin of a recently deceased goat is more conducive to baby-making.
Who exactly are we referencing when we call ourselves someone’s “Valentine?” Much like the nature of love itself, it’s largely a mystery.
Some say St. Valentine was a priest and physician who lived in Rome and was killed by emperor Claudius II around 270 CE after being discovered secretly wedding lovers as a tactic to get the men out of military service. However, he may also have been a bishop in Terni, Italy. Adding to the fun, it’s also possible that these two stories refer to the same person. Plus, there was yet another Valentine who lived in Africa and met an unfortunate February end.
In all the confusion, the Catholic Church took St. Valentine off the General Roman Calendar back in 1969, though it continues to recognize him (whoever he may be) as a saint.
Whoever St. Valentine was in human form, he’s enjoyed a wide and varied purview in the afterlife. In addition to watching over love and happy marriages, he’s also the patron saint of beekeepers, fainting, travelers, and people with epilepsy.
From where he sat surveying the raucous celebration of Lupercalia, Pope Gelasius I had seen enough. It was “un-Christian,” he decided, and, now that it was the 5th century and Christians were no longer laying low in Rome, he decided to cancel it once and for all.
Pope Gelasius I wasn’t a complete party-pooper, though. Realizing he’d have more success if he replaced the offending holiday with something more wholesome, he declared February 14 the Feast of St. Valentine.
What’s more romantic than a royal marriage that took five years to negotiate? Many things, you might argue, which might be part of the reason Geoffrey Chaucer needed 699 lines of poetry to adequately romanticize the occasion. The result was “Parliament of Fowls,” likely written to celebrate the union of King Richard II of England and Anne of Bohemia in 1380.
The poem centers on birds who come together to pair off in February. “For this was sent on Seynt Valentiyne’s day,” he wrote. “Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.” In the story, however, a female eagle, unsatisfied with her suitors, gets Mother Nature to give her another year to decide. It’s a 600-year-old reminder that still rings true: No need to settle, holiday or no holiday.
Myth has it that it was Charles, the French Duke of Oréans, who sent the first Valentine to his wife, who was imprisoned in the Tower of London at the time. And while Charles was indeed a prolific romantic poet who penned more than 500 poems over the course of his life, several referencing the holiday, the supposed verse wasn’t a note meant for a certain someone but rather a commentary on court tradition. The British Library goes so far as to call it “essentially an anti-Valentine.”
The real trailblazer was a gentlewoman by the name of Margery Brews, who was deeply in love with one John Paston. The couple wrote love letters back and forth, and in one she referred to him as her “right well-beloved Valentine” and even signed the letter as “your Valentine.”
While men on both sides of the family questioned the match, Margery’s mother stepped in with her own well-timed holiday reference. “On Friday it is Saint Valentine’s Day, and every bird chooses itself a mate. And if you would like to come on Thursday night,” she implored John, “ I trust God that you will speak to my husband, and I will pray that we will bring the matter to a conclusion.”
Picking up where Chaucer had left off a few centuries earlier, Shakespeare made several Valentine’s Day references in his plays, and his acknowledgment of the holiday reflected its growing prominence. Whether or not the lower classes celebrated the day is left to history, but there is evidence that wealthy people marked the occasion by giving small gifts and cards.
The oldest printed card we know of dates to 1797. Adorned with cupids and flowers, it also features the verse:
“Since on this ever Happy day,
All Nature’s full of Love and Play
Yet harmless still if my design,
‘Tis but to be your Valentine.”
The cryptic message hand-written inside by one Catherine Mossday is somewhat less romantic:
As I have repeatedly requested you to come I think you must have some reason for not complying with my request, but as I have something particular to say to you I could wish you make it all agreeable to come on Sunday next without fail and in doing you will oblige your well wisher.”
If you were in the market for a store-bought valentine in the mid-19th century, you were probably left choosing from a selection of cheap pieces of paper printed with a rhyme or two. It was in the gap left by this uninspiring offering that 20-year-old Esther Howland spotted an opportunity.
Howland’s family owned a stationery store, and she knew that fancier valentines were available in England. Hypothesizing that American consumers might be equally interested in an up-scale greeting card to mark the occasion, she created some of her own, which featured intricate designs and lace detail. She sold her creations for up to a whopping 75¢ (~$100 today).
Despite the price, her cards were a hit and she soon hired help and expanded her business to become the wildly successful New England Valentine Co.
As spending on Valentine’s gifts continued to rise, chocolate company Cadbury had the innovative idea to offer their chocolates in heart-shaped boxes in 1861. The logic went that, in addition to a sweet gift, the recipient would also end up with a reusable decorative box.
Fortunately for Cadbury, the new boxes were a hit. Unfortunately, the brand hadn’t patented the idea and the design was soon imitated by any chocolate-maker with a head for business.
Valentine’s Day cards can be the perfect way to tell someone how you feel, and for the Victorians, those feelings didn’t have to be positive.
In fact, the Victorians delighted, it seems, in sending nasty, anonymous notes that criticized anyone from unwanted suitors to acquaintances and family members with unattractive shortcomings. The notes were appropriately nicknamed “vinegar valentines,” and they often went something like this:
“Here’s a pretty cool reception
At least you’ll say there’s no deception,
It says as plain as it can say,
Old fellow you’d best stop away.”
Before it was the greeting card giant we know today, the company that went on to become Hallmark was no more than a quiet Nebraska kid named Joyce Clyde Hall who sold imported foreign postcards to local retailers. Within a few years of dropping out of high school and making his way to the larger market of Kansas City, he’d enlisted his brother into the steadily growing business.
Though they’d begun their foray into Valentine’s Day cards in 1913, a fire that gutted their entire operation two years later spurred the brothers to refocus their efforts away from postcards and onto original designs of their own, including those for holidays like Valentine’s Day.
Betting on greeting cards proved a good investment for the Hall brothers, and the mass production of cards geared toward loving couples was equally savvy. Today, romantics give an estimated 145 million Valentine’s Day cards every year, putting the holiday second only to Christmas. (And that’s just the store-bought variety!)
Money can’t buy love, but it sure can express it. At least, that’s what Americans seem to think. In 2021, Valentine’s Day spending hit $21.8 billion, which, due to the pandemic, was far less than the $27.4 billion spent on heart-shaped gifts, red roses, romantic dinners, and more in 2020.
If you’re wondering what gift to expect this Valentine’s Day, odds are that sugar is involved. Candy is by far the most popular token of affection, followed by cards and flowers. If it’s jewelry you’re after, don’t get your hopes up: Only 10 percent of Americans wind up with something sparkly each year. And, for better or for worse, 1 percent get pets!
With indoor dining looking like an iffy prospect (it’s hard to think of a less romantic gift than a killer virus), the usual gift-giving trends looked a bit different in 2021. To compensate for the lack of wining and dining, suitors everywhere turned to another place to put their money: jewelry.
In 2021, Valentine’s jewelry sales shot up 15 percent, skyrocketing its ranking from the 11th most-popular gift all the way to the number three spot.
In the barrage of heart-shaped necklaces, some people make out of Valentine’s Day with the ultimate jewelry gift: an engagement ring. In fact, a staggering 6 million people get engaged on the date every year. It’s the second most popular day to drop to one knee after Christmas.
Valentine’s Day caps off a time of year sometimes called “engagement season.” Each year, a full 40 percent of the year’s engagements go down between November and February.
If you happen to be out of the country on February 14 this year, your day might look different depending on where you are. In Japan, women are the ones expected to give chocolate gifts (in the U.S., by contrast, men spend twice as much as women on average).
In Norway, women receive poems complete with cryptic clues they must decipher to discover the identity of their suitor. In Italy, chocolate-covered hazelnuts are wrapped in romantic quotes translated into multiple different languages. In South Africa, women eschew mystery in favor of pinning the names of their lovers directly on their shirt sleeves.
For couples in the Philippines that are eager to tie the knot but short on cash, government-sponsored group weddings are a practical solution. Many of these weddings happen all over the country on Valentine’s Day. Participation is simple—all couples need to do is show up in proper attire and say “I do.” Due to the timing of the mass events, more wedded couples in the country share Valentine’s Day as an anniversary than any other day of the year.
Another Valentine’s Day anniversary is one celebrated by not one but two U.S. states. Oregon became the 33rd state on February 14, 1859, even if its residents didn’t know it right away. (It took a full month for the news to travel across the country via a combination of telegraph, stagecoach, and steamship.) Exactly 53 years later, Arizona followed suit as the 48th state.
However much Americans spend, send, and propose on Valentine’s Day, almost no one loves the day of love—at least not as much as they enjoy the other holidays out there. The Harris Poll found that just 1 percent of people cited Valentine’s Day as their favorite holiday, which ranked it alongside Memorial Day and Labor Day. All those chocolates and flowers for nothing!