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Where Does Valentine’s Day Come From?

With the year’s arguably most romantic holiday fast approaching, many of us have wondered at least once why love and romance are celebrated on that particular day. When looking at most of the other holidays, we usually are able to muster some kind of explanation as to where it comes from. Christmas? That’s easy – this is when the Christ was born (let’s not enter the debate here about whether or not he was actually born around that time or if the date was picked in order to take over pagan celebrations). Easter? Let’s celebrate the resurrection of the Christ. Pentecost? Let’s celebrate the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles. Of course, not all holidays are religion-related, just take a look at your 4th of July, the French “14 Juillet” or Germany’s (more recent) 3 Oktober, celebrating milestone events in a nation’s history. Some other nations do not have an official “national holiday” – take a look at the UK, although they do have a Bank Holiday to celebrate the end of the Summer; how pragmatic is that? Who wouldn’t want a long weekend right before it starts getting cold again?

But this is not what we are here to talk about – any ideas on the origins of Valentine’s Day? If you do decide to look up the origins of this day, the internet will offer you various explanations, most of them religion related and dating back to Roman times.

First questions first: who was Saint Valentine? Three Valentines may be found – the most relevant Valentine lived in the third century in Rome. At the time, Emperor Claudius II decided to put a ban on marriage for all young men as he considered that young single men would be more efficient soldiers than young married men (i.e. men with wives and children). Valentine, a priest, defied the emperor and carried on secretly performing marriages. When his insubordination was discovered, he was put to death… on February 14th (or so the story goes). It is also discussed whether the Pagan celebrations of Lupercalia also inspired this holiday – although one can question whether romance really played any part in these celebrations. Lupercalia did not actually take place on February 14 nor did it directly have anything to do with love per se – it was a celebration of fertility, during which a goat and a dog were sacrificed and two young men would be anointed with the blood from the sacrifice. It was believed to release health and fertility for the year to come. Pope Gelasius is said to have banned Lupercalia at the end of the 5th Century, all the while decreeing that Valentine should be honoured and remembered on February 14th. It then becomes slightly obscure as to how Valentine’s day became so popular – so popular that it is the second biggest holiday in the number of cards being sold (the first one being, unsurprisingly, Christmas). It is said that from the 1300s onwards, February 14th started turning into a more romantic holiday. The writer Geoffrey Chaucer, more famous for his Canterbury Tales, is said to have made one of the first written references to Valentine’s day as a lovers’ day. To clarify, his would be one of the earliest surviving references to Valentine’s day which does not mean that no one wrote about this holiday before Chaucer did. In his poem Parlement of Foules, Chaucer writes about this beautiful queen, ending the verse as such: “ For this was on seynt Valentynes day, Whan every fould cometh ther to chese his make,”. The very last verse can be loosely translated as a reference to the time when birds mate, which appeared to be around mid-February. Valentine cards started to get exchanged in the 15th Century, really taking their toll from the 17th Century onwards. Valentine’s day then exported to the US around the 1800s and has now become a major consumer holiday.

As a small side note, it should also be noted that even if Valentine’s Day is not celebrated all over the world, you will almost always find another lover’s holiday at some other time in the year. South Korea actually has a love-themed day on the 14th of February, March and April – starting with Valentine’s day where women offer men chocolate, a month later the tables are turned and men will offer women chocolate. Finally, in April, singles will mourn (or celebrate depending on where you stand) their single status by eating black noodles. Over countries rely on Valentine’s day to attract tourists: As one of the biggest producers of cocoa in the world, Ghana has done so quite well. Valentine’s day has been turned into into National Chocolate Day and now attracts chocolate lovers – and lovers of chocolate – from around the world to Ghana on Valentine’s day.

Zambia might actually be ahead of us – there, it is not rare for family and friends to get together on Valentine’s Day to show their affection. Finland and Estonia follow the same idea. Love shouldn’t be restricted to couples. Why couldn’t there be a Friendship Day? Oh wait, there is. The next one is July 30th so better start thinking of your friendship cards now.