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For the Love of Valentine’s Day: Meanings and Symbols

It’s the time of year again when people pluck up the courage to send anonymous or not so anonymous cards, when relationships begin and couples reaffirm their love for each other with chocolate, wine, flowers and a nice meal. It’s Valentine’s Day, but aside from our shops turning pink, white and red with roses, what do we know about this special day?

Pre-Christian Rites

It may surprise people to learn that 14th February, the day celebrated as the Saints Day of Valentine, actually has a Roman pre-Christian origin. Lupercalia was a three-day celebration of fertility and a festival of health and renewal. It may even have been one of the earliest Roman fertility festivals. Spring is still a month away and others celebrated fertility rights around what would be, in our calendar, late March and early April – approximately the time of year that we celebrate Easter today.

St. Valentine

But which one? There are two known Valentines who were early Christian saints to whom this day may be attributed. We do not know whether either man died on 14th February by our calendar, but the day honours both men nonetheless (even though one used to have his Saints Day in May). It must have been a common name as there are other early Christian figures that go by the name. Of these two men, we do know that both were clerics – one a priest, the other a bishop, the former died a natural death around 495AD and the latter was martyred for being a Christian some 300 years earlier.

Thank Chaucer for Medieval Valentine’s Dayvalentine's _careco2

It’s amazing how often our traditions are purely the invention of writers. We attribute much to Dickens, Austen and Shakespeare and another famous writer is responsible for this celebration too: Geoffrey Chaucer, though he is not solely responsible for it. Courtly love and chivalry captured the popular imagination and it was already popular when Chaucer wrote in Parlement of Foules: “For this was on seynt Volantynys day. Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make”. The lovebirds referred to in the text are King Richard II and Anne of Bohemia who were celebrating the first anniversary of their engagement. Yet it would be the King’s son, Black Prince Edward, who would be more notable in later years for standards of romance and royalty.

The Heart

But what of the symbol of the heart, the two rounded humps that taper down to a point? ♥ is a universal symbol of love today, yet even in the time of Chaucer it was not commonly recognised as such. It would take another century for it to become a symbol of romance. There are examples of the heart as this shape on shields and in decoration, but they often denoted allegiance to a certain Lord, no different from the lion or the fleur-de-lis. They nearly always represented plants rather than body parts and more often than not, to denote the fig or ivy leaf. It is from this latter symbol that perhaps the link with love began – after all, Adam and Eve used fig leaves to cover their modesty in The Garden of Eden.

Valentine’s Cards

These are not as modern as we might think. Rather like how Dickens captured the imagination of Christmas, the Victorian period saw the very first Valentine’s Cards. In the previous century, young men would send anonymous notes wrapped in silk and lace to women they admired and by 1797, books were published with examples of verses to help young men to compose their own poetry. Modern books on “How to Find the Man / Woman of Your Dreams” are certainly not a new phenomenon! Eventually, laziness must have taken over or printers realised they could make money and began producing the Valentine’s Card in which we would put our own messages.