We all know what Valentine’s Day is and how it works, right? It’s the day of love – an amorous anniversary to show your loved one or love hopeful your true feelings by giving an affectionate gift – cards, chocolates, flowers and jewelry.
But where did this romantic ritual come from? And why those particular gifts?
Was if founded on the martyrdom of St. Valentine, a young Roman priest at the time, who was executed on February 14, 270 A.D. after disobeying Emperor Claudius II’s decree to outlaw performing marriages because he believed single men made better soldiers? Was it an attempt to Christianize the pagan celebration of Lupercalia, a fertility festival in mid-February dedicated to Faunaus, the Roman god of agriculture?
Maybe it’s both of these. Maybe it’s neither of the them. But what we do know – what we can document – are what were and are the most iconic Valentine’s Day gifts of all time. You’re probably familiar with all of them, but the origins might surprise you.
The oldest known valentine is a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife after he was captured at the Battle of Agincourt and imprisoned in the Tower of London. A few years later, findings points to King Henry V hiring John Lydgate, a writer, to compose a valentine note to Catherine of Valois.
For centuries, flowers have represented love, compassion and fertility. But the real reason flowers became a V-Day norm stems from the old-fashioned custom of sending floral bouquets to pass on non-verbal messages. In the case of Valentine’s, the rose became the flower of choice as it represented love in all its forms and was supposedly the favorite flower of Venus, the Goddess of Love.
The “Mother of the Valentine”
Around 1840, the valentine exchange game upped the ante thanks in large part to Esther A. Howland, the “Mother of the Valentine.” Howland began making and selling the first mass-produced valentines in America. She created elaborate items with lace, ribbons and colorful “scrap” pictures.
Victorians had long been keen on the potential of chocolates and their natural use as a tool of seduction. In fact, etiquette books and advertisers saw this alluring aphrodisiac as a way to make a profit by encouraging the interpretation that an exchanging of chocolates between men and women was a declaration of love. The more expensive the chocolate, the more the man loved the woman. The rest is history.
Printed Valentine’s Day cards
Thanks to huge improvements in printing technology and lower postage rates in the 1900s, ready-made cards began to replace written letters. So much so that today’s Valentine’s greeting card industry rakes in an impressive $1 billion of revenue – the highest card-selling holiday after Christmas.
It seems like as Valentine’s Day continued to pick up notoriety, those once “small tokens of admiration” started getting bigger and pricier. Giving your loved one jewelry started out as something more common in the nobility and upper class; however, similar to chocolates, gifts of jewelry became a symbol of love. The pricier and more elegant the piece, “clearly” demonstrated the more affection you had for your love.
Hopefully you now have a better picture as to why you’ll be heading to the store this Valentine’s Day to pick up that romantic card, box of chocolates, bouquet of roses and those new dangly earrings. After all, it’s tradition.