14th February, will see more than 25 million lovers – or would-be lovers – send Valentine’s Day cards to the object of their affections.
But who was St Valentine? And why is he associated with hearts, roses and chocolate?
According to legend, the man we now know as St Valentine was a priest who clandestinely performed marriages for soldiers of the Roman Empire (who at the time were forbidden by the Emperor to wed), handing them parchment hearts to remind them of their marital vows. Like so many of the early saints and martyrs, Valentine came to a grisly end, but while he was in prison, he fell in love with his jailor’s daughter, and on the night before his execution wrote her a letter signed ‘from your Valentine’ – the first ever Valentine card!
Whether or not the story is true, St Valentine of Rome became a popular saint, and by the Middle Ages, Chaucer was writing of St Valentine’s Day as the occasion when the birds chose their mate – the first written record of the date of 14th February being linked with romantic love.
The oldest known Valentine missive to a loved one is a poem in a letter written in the 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans to his wife, in which he declares: ‘I am already sick of love, my very gentle Valentine.’
He was imprisoned in the Tower of London when he wrote it, which probably explains why his expressions of affection are somewhat lacking in romantic ardour.
Fast forward several hundred years, and St Valentine’s Day was firmly entrenched as an annual celebration of romance, with 18th Century lovers exchanging small gifts, as well as hand-written love-notes. Young women might awake on the morning of the 14thFeb to find an anonymous hand-made card decorated with flowers and cupids had been pushed beneath their door in the night, while in 1797 an enterprising publisher brought out ‘The Young Man’s Valentine Writer’ – a vital tool for the lovestruck suitor lacking the requisite poetical talent to declare his everlasting love in his own words.
The 18th Century also saw the publication in a book of nursery rhyme of what must surely be the most iconic Valentine’s Day sentiment ever: 'The rose is red, the violet’s blue/The honey is sweet, and so are you.'
The tradition of Valentine cards being unsigned, may explain why they were so popular with loved-up Victorians, propriety being less restrictive when romantic sentiments were expressed by a secret admirer! With advances in printing, elaborately-decorated Valentine cards became mass-produced in factories, while the invention of cheap Penny Black postage stamps meant that by the middle of the 19th Century, Victorian postmen were staggering under the weight of half a million Valentine’s Day love-letters in London alone! For those who wished to discourage a persistent unwanted suitor there were Vinegar Valentines- postcards with insulting messages – although as they were sent anonymously, it’s hard to tell how effective they were!
It was also the Victorians who helped spread the craze for presenting a loved one with confectionary on the 14thFebruary, when Richard Cadbury produced the first heart-shaped boxes of chocolates. It could be worth searching the attic for that heart-shaped box that once belonged to your great-great-grandmother, as these boxes are now extremely valuable and highly prized by collectors!
As for the red rose’s association with Valentine’s Day. That was also down to the Victorians and their habit of sending secret messages in the ‘language of flowers.’ Should a young man see his beloved carrying a bouquet of red roses, he could be confident that she’d be his Valentine, if he asked her!
Skip forward to the 2020s, and St Valentine’s Day is still a day for romance when lovers who every other day of the year message each other by text or on social media, still send cards, chocolate and flowers.