The evolution of Valentine’s Day
By Chris Bonham
On February 14th, people all across the world will take part in Valentine’s Day, a day predicated on the celebration of romantic love. This holiday is celebrated in the Americas, Europe, and even some parts of eastern Asia. In the United States alone, it’s estimated that more than 200 million people exchange Valentine’s Day cards, chocolates, flowers, and other gifts. Hearts, cupid; we’re all familiar with the imagery and traditions of this particular holiday.
But Valentine’s Day hasn’t always been about romantic love. For centuries, it was (and still is) celebrated in the Catholic Church as a feast to St. Valentine. Valentine, or Valentinus, as he has also been called, is a figure of legend, primarily known for performing marriage ceremonies for soldiers against the wishes of the Roman Empire. Valentine’s actions were discovered, and he was executed for his selflessness.
So how did the Catholic feast celebrating the life of St. Valentine become the celebration of romance that we all know so well today? For that, one can thank Geoffrey Chaucer, a medieval author known best for his Canterbury Tales. In 1382, Chaucer wrote a poem commemorating the engagement/marriage of England’s King Richard II which contains the first recorded connection between St. Valentine’s Day and romantic love. This association quickly spread during the period of renaissance that consumed most of Europe shortly thereafter. Valentine’s Day became an enduring part of chivalric and religious tradition, particularly in Britain.
However, when a group of Puritans (we now know this group as the Pilgrims) decided to flee oppression under the Catholic Church and head to the New World, they left most of the Catholic traditions behind them, including the celebration of St. Valentine’s Day. Even into the early days of the United States, Valentine’s Day was something very few people took part in. A gigantic influx in the number of European immigrants during the 19th and 20th centuries changed this, however, as these new citizens of the United States brought with them their cultural traditions.
According to the U.S. Greeting Card Association, the first mass-produced Valentine’s Day cards in the United States were manufactured and sold around 1847. While Valentine’s Day’s growth and acceptance has not been as public as other major holidays, it has been quite explosive, due to the sheer number of people who celebrate the holiday (which the U.S. Greeting Card Association estimates to be in the neighborhood of one billion), a number that continues to rise every year.
Valentine’s Day is one of the oldest holidays that we celebrate in America. For many people, it’s also one of the more beloved, and it continues to be one of the most celebrated holidays in the world.