What’s Valentine’s Day without a bouquet of roses, heartfelt greeting card, or heart-shaped box of chocolates? At least, that’s what it feels like for anyone shopping for their significant other, if only to outdo the previous year. No wonder so many people believe that this commercial holiday started as a marketing ploy. In actuality, the origins of Valentine’s Day are steeped in history. (The same can’t be said about Singles Awareness Day, which follows on the 15th.)
The Origins of Valentine’s Day
Valentine’s Day is named after St. Valentine, the patron saint of lovers, beekeepers, and epileptics. Little is known of St. Valentine, and there’s dispute as to whether he was one person. Multiple historical figures were named Valentine or Valentinus, the two most likely candidates being martyrs beheaded on February 14 around 270 A.D. for performing miracles.
According to legend, St. Valentine was a bishop of Terni put to death for healing a blind child. Another legend tells how, after being imprisoned for helping Christians escape Roman persecution, he signed a letter to his jailor’s daughter “from your Valentine.” Separating fact from fiction in these romantic backstories is challenging, however, as most originated after the time of St. Valentine.
How exactly did a Christian martyr become the patron saint of lovers? No one knows. Nonetheless, St. Valentine became a religious and romantic figure, and by the Middle Ages he was one of the most popular saints throughout Europe.
Valentine’s Day Circa the Middle Ages
We’ll get back to St. Valentine. Now, our look at the origins of Valentine’s Day takes us to Ancient Rome and the pagan holiday Lupercalia. Celebrated on the ides of February, Lupercalia saw Roman men drink to excess, remove their clothes, and sacrifice a goat. (When in Rome!) They then took to the streets, slapping women with strips of goat hide. Roman women—if history is to be believed—lined up to take part, hoping it would lead to a healthy pregnancy.
Pope Gelasius was not a fan of Lupercalia, to say the least. Condemning the superstitious holiday in the late fifth century, Gelasius and the Catholic Church declared February 14 to be St. Valentine’s Day. Certainly, Gelasius picked the date to commemorate the death of St. Valentine, but we can’t help but wonder if he saw an opportunity to replace a pagan holiday.
Love Is for the Birds
English poet Geoffrey Chaucer was the first to associate Valentine’s Day with romance. In his 1375 poem “Parliament of Foules,” Chaucer pointed out that Valentine’s Day coincided with the start of bird nesting season, lending credence to the idea that the day should be a celebration of love. The idea caught on, especially after poets and playwrights further romanticized the holiday. “Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s Day. / All in the morning betime, / and I a maid at your window, / to be your Valentine,” says Ophelia in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”
“From Your Secret Admirer”
By the 1400s, friends and couples throughout Europe were exchanging handwritten poems: a precursor to today’s greeting cards. The practice came to the New World in the 1700s, about the time commercially printed cards were gaining popularity.
When Esther Howland of Massachusetts came across an imported card in the 1940s, she was inspired to improve on its beautiful but expensive design. Her creation of gilded lace, wafer paper, and cupid ornaments led to the first mass-produced valentines in America. “No other producer of commercial valentines understood so well their potential for the tactile communication of complex feeling,” wrote author Barry Shank.
Valentine’s Day: One of the Largest Retail Holidays
Today, Valentine’s Day is celebrated the world over. According to Hallmark, about 145 million Valentine’s Day cards are exchanged every year. Americans spent approximately $24 billion on Valentine’s Day in 2022. Love it or hate it, Valentine’s Day has grown into one of the largest commercial holidays, with people everywhere shopping online and in person for the perfect gift for that special someone.
No, Valentine’s Day didn’t start as a marketing ploy. However, that hasn’t stopped marketers from using the holiday to boost sales or tailor their messaging to lovestruck audiences. (We’re guessing this isn’t what Pope Gelasius had in mind.) Still, marketers must be capable of leveraging holidays like Valentine’s Day if they’re to help businesses, particularly e-commerce sites, rise above the competition.
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