Valentine’s Day occurs every 14th February across the United Kingdom and in many other countries around the world. Greetings cards, chocolates, flowers and gifts are exchanged between loved ones, all in the name of St. Valentine. But who was this mysterious saint and where did these traditions come from?
The History of Valentine’s Day
St Valentine, who died around A.D. 270, is officially recognized by the Catholic Church. However, his true identity is often questioned, one account, from the 1400s, describes Valentine as a temple priest who was beheaded near Rome by the emperor Claudius II for helping Christian couples get married. Claudius II had outlawed marriages among ordinary people because he believed that single men made better soldiers. A different account claims Valentine was the Bishop of Terni, also martyred by Claudius II on the outskirts of Rome. Because of the similarities of these accounts, it’s thought they may refer to the same person. Due to confusion surrounds the true identity of St. Valentine that the Catholic Church discontinued public worship of him in 1969, though his name remains on its list of officially recognized saints.
Unfortunately, for all you romantics out there, no record exists of romantic celebrations on Valentine’s Day prior to a poem written around 1375 by Geoffrey Chaucer, an English poet famous mostly for ‘The Canterbury Tales’. In his poem “Parliament of Foules,” he links a tradition of courtly love with the celebration of St. Valentine’s feast day–an association that didn’t exist until after his poem received widespread attention. The poem refers to February 14th as the day birds (and humans) come together to find a mate. When Chaucer wrote, “For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day / Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate,” he may have invented the holiday we know today.
In medieval England, lovers gave gifts to each other secretly on Valentine’s Day, and young single boys chose ‘Valentines’ among the girls by lot, then the girls wrote poems and songs for the boys all year, admiring them like knights.
The customs and symbols of Valentine’s Day in the UK
Today, British people give each other chocolates, Valentine cards and soft toys, Teddy bears being the most popular. Anonymous valentine cards are still given, where the receiver doesn’t know who has sent them their confession of love. Flowers are one of the most popular gifts for Valentine’s Day, a symbol of love and tenderness. Red roses are given to a girlfriend or boyfriend, a partner, husband or wife. Many couple celebrate by going out for a special dinner In fact, the UK spends half a billion pounds on Valentine gifts every year.