Dear GiftTree Blogger Extraordinaire, please tell us the true story of St Valentine and why we celebrate this lovely day (apart from the fact that we totally love getting chocolate and flowers and gourmet gift baskets from our sweeties.)
Of course! The heart-stopping story of St. Valentine begins way back in Ancient Rome: Gladiators! Caesars! Chariot races!
….*crickets*….*puzzled, skeptical glances*…
OK, OK it’s not really that exciting. In reality, all historians know about the real St. Valentine is that he lived during the Roman empire in the 3rd century, and died in Italy, close to a bridge, on February 14.
Bo-ring! So why is one of the most lucrative and popular American holidays attributed to this dead Italian guy?
Well, there is one story about how he refused to worship Roman Emperor Claudius -which in the Christian tradition meant he was brave and important – so the Pope gave him a feast day, commemorating his death and life. Valentine’s death also coincided with the mid-February pagan Roman holiday of Lupercalia, a day that involved sacrificing goats and dogs and running around the city naked, wearing the skins of the newly-sacrificed animals over your head and whipping young vestal virgins to encourage fertility. (Really.)
So when the Catholic Church rose to power, celebrating St Valentine’s Feast instead of Lupercalia was a way to elevate Christianity above the perceived worldliness of Rome and encourage wholesome living. The day became what you might call a Big Deal and people throughout Christendom acknowledged it by eating together and praying to the Saint.
But what about the love, the romance, the cards, the flowers, the chocolate, all that?
Aha! Good question. About a thousand years after St Valentine kicked the bucket there lived this famous English writer named Geoffrey Chaucer. He wrote The Canterbury Tales and popularized many things about medieval life, the most important of which was courtly love. Fair maidens, chivalry, knights, all that.
During this time it was also believed that birds were most likely to mate together mainly in mid-February – giving rise to “the birds and the bees” and “love birds” clichés. And so with the combination of mid-February bird mating rituals, Chaucher’s poems, the maidens and noblemen falling in love at court, and the already established Feast Day, you have the makings of a modern romantic holiday.
OK, but flowers and chocolate?
Oh yes, that. Basically as society progressed throughout the Industrial Revolution in England, people had more money to spend, businesses opened for specialty purposes and people had more money to create and buy fancy consumable things like chocolate confections and large collections of roses. Eventually Valentine’s greeting cards became mass-produced by the millions, allowing people to buy cards instead of writing poems or letters. All of these traditions came “across the pond” when America was settled.
A couple of centuries later, companies like FTD, Hallmark and eventually online companies (GiftTree included!) have helped make Valentine’s Day a household consumer holiday to the tune of $20 billion dollars in nationwide retail spending just last year.
Yep, billion with a B. Even brave St Valentine couldn’t have imagined that.
So have a happy Valentine’s Day! (And no whipping of vestal virgins, please.)