12 February 2021
12 February 2021
It is known by some as the dreaded ‘Hallmark Holiday’, popularised by the greeting card company to boost sales in the sluggish northern hemisphere winter. Yet the origins of Valentine’s Day stretch back long before heart-shaped boxes of chocolates.
There are several theories on the history of the famously loved-up day. Most agree it’s named after a Roman priest, Valentine, who was sentenced to death by Emperor Claudius II in 269AD for his controversial Christian views. The story goes that while awaiting execution, he allegedly fell in love with the blind jail-master’s daughter, restored her sight and signed her a love note: ‘From Your Valentine’.
He was killed the following day, February 14, and when he was posthumously made a saint 200 years later, the date became known as St Valentine’s Day.
Other historians suggest the day’s connection to romance came after a rebranding of a debaucherous pagan festival called Lupercalia, which Romans would celebrate at the end of winter from February 13 to 15. Men drew the names of women out of a hat to be “coupled up” for the duration of the festival and would slap their mates with freshly slaughtered goat’s hide to increase fertility. In the late 5th century, Pope Gelasius combined Lupercalia with St Valentine’s Day in an effort to make the custom altogether more Christian.
Thus, Valentine's Day began creeping into popular culture, with references appearing in Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls in 1382, and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet in the late 1590s.
And it turns out that Hallmark did have something to do with the popularisation of Valentine’s Day in modern times. The company began producing Valentine’s cards in 1913, to great success, and it’s now the second biggest-selling themed card on the calendar, after Christmas.
These days, most Australian and New Zealand couples celebrate the day semi-ironically with a restaurant booking and a bunch of roses, though plenty of cultures around the world have different ways of showing their love.
Ever wanted more than one Valentine’s Day? Koreans celebrate “love days” on the 14th of every single month. February 14 is still the big one, where women traditionally give chocolate to men, who return the favour on March 14, by giving a white-coloured gift to their special mate. Those who don’t get a gift eat a meal of noodles covered in black bean paste – a delicious consolation.
As well as the traditional V-day trappings, Danish secret admirers send missives known as “Gaekkebrev”, or joke letters, at Easter time. Quirky poems are written on intricately clipped pieces of paper, and if the recipient correctly guesses the identity of the sender, they win a chocolate egg on Easter Sunday.
May 1st is the day Czech lovers celebrate their coupledom; it’s known as the Day of Love. Tradition dictates that partners should kiss under a blossoming cherry tree to ensure the longevity of the union.
Brazil’s Dia dos Namorados, aka “Lover’s Day”, sees couples exchange romantic gifts on June 12, which is Saint Anthony's Day Eve. Saint Anthony of Padua (1195 –1231) is known as the marriage saint, as legend says he helped warring couples patch up their differences.
Saint Dwynwen Day is the proxy Valentine’s Day for the Welsh, and is marked on January 25 with flowers, chocolates, and hard-to-land restaurant bookings. The day is named after Dwynwen, the Welsh saint of lovers, a fourth-century princess who was so unlucky in love she became a nun who prayed for others to have better luck.
The Filipinos really, really like Valentine’s Day, and it has become known as the day to get married with thousands of couples getting hitched in mass ceremonies each year on February 14.
Until three years ago, Valentine’s Day was banned in Saudi Arabia. A celebration named for a Christian saint didn’t translate well with the religious authorities of the conservative Islamic kingdom and shops were prohibited from selling red objects and Valentine’s Day merchandise. But when a Saudi religious figure endorsed Valentine’s Day in 2018, the religious police relaxed the law and couples began to celebrate their love cautiously, but openly, with hearts, flowers and all the trimmings.
By Michael Harry