Valentine’s Day is a day of affection, romance, and Hallmark cards in the United States, but not every culture celebrates the holiday likewise. In fact, it wasn’t always a holiday and would have never existed had it not been for a martyr in the Roman Empire.
The Man behind the Holiday
Not much is known about St. Valentine, according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, or USCCB, but he is recognized as a martyr, therefore a saint, in the Catholic Church. The church holds the tradition that he was martyred after being imprisoned by the Romans.
One of the legends on the website stated that one of the Valentine’s fell in love and wrote the first “valentine” while imprisoned. The Catholic Church, according to the USCCB, upholds that he wrote cards to many suffering Christians. Still, both legends agree that the cards were signed, “From your Valentine.”
From Man to Holiday
Valentine’s Day happens to coincide with an old pagan holiday, Lupercalia, according to the History Channel website. Lupercalia was a holiday for fertility, honoring the god of agriculture and Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome that suckled on a female wolf.
Eventually Lupercalia became outlawed as Christianity began taking over Rome. Pope Gelasius declared Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day at the end of the fifth century.
The first valentines, and thus beginning the association of the holiday with romance, were written in the Middle Ages, according to the website. Slowly, the exchange of handwritten notes and small tokens of affection rose in popularity. When printing technology improved, printed cards replaced their handwritten predecessors. Premade cards did not arrive until the Victorian era, a time when outward signs of affection were discouraged, according to the website.
Valentine’s Day around the World
Valentine’s Day is not limited to America and Rome. Thanks to the spread of ideas, primarily via missionaries or colonists, other non-Christian countries also celebrate Valentine’s Day. For example, in Japan, Valentine’s Day was introduced in the 1930s according to the article, “10 Strange and Wonderful Valentine’s Day Traditions from Around the World.” On Valentine’s Day, the women give chocolate to the men, with different types of chocolate signifying the relationship the woman may have with the recipient of the gift. For instance, a husband would receive a different type of chocolate than a brother or a colleague. The men don’t have to do anything until March 14, the day they reciprocate, often buying more expensive chocolate or gifts than the ones they received on Valentine’s Day.
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In Finland, the day is usually reserved for friendship. Cards and gifts are exchanged with friends, according to the website, “Today I Found Out.”
The same article cites another Valentine’s Day custom, unique to Norfolk, England. In addition to sending flowers and chocolates to loved ones, a mysterious, friendly figure sometimes known as Jack Valentine knocks on children’s doors on the eve of Valentine’s Day and leaves them little gifts.
France also had several customs that were eventually banned. According to an article on the “Lost in France” website, there was a ritual called “une loterie d’amour,” which means drawing for love. All the unmarried men and women would enter houses that faced each other. Men and women would call out to each other and eventually everyone would pair off. If the male did not find his partner attractive, he would abandon her, leaving her single.
On the same day, all the women who were deserted by their male partners would gather together, light a bonfire, and throw pictures of the men in the fire. Usually, cursing the men and rowdy behavior followed the burning of the images, and it became so bad that the French government had to outlaw the practice. Today, flowers and gifts are the norm in France.
No matter where you are, Valentine’s Day is a day set aside for affection, and if you don’t particularly like Valentine’s Day, chocolates usually go on sale Feb.15.
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