Valentine’s Day falls on Tuesday, February 14.
Valentine’s Day is one of the most fun holidays to get involved in, largely due to the flexibility involved. It’s intended to celebrate lovers and give people a prime opportunity to show their partners how much they love and care for them, which can be essentially anything depending on the partner. However, if your partner is a fan of the old-fashioned approach, flowers and chocolates should do just fine!
Valentine’s Day is often derided as a commercial holiday nowadays, and the pressure to do something special can be high, but the core of the holiday is love and affection. It also has a long and somewhat complicated history.
Most agree that the holiday has its roots in ancient Rome and the fertility and springtime rituals of Lupercalia, which took place around the same time, and that it takes its name from the Christian figure of Saint Valentine. However, many disagree as to how.
The church recognizes multiple saints by the name of Valentine, so it’s difficult to discern who was who, or which of them were real people. The stories vary on what he did to earn such distinction. One version claims he is famous for saving Christians from Roman persecution, but not before sending a card to his lover signed, “From your Valentine,” which in the modern day is now a popular way to sign Valentine’s Day gifts or refer to their recipient. Another claims that he performed secret marriages for third-century Romans, after the emperor forbade young men to marry to better conscript them into the army, and for this is remembered as the patron saint of love.
All stories agree that he was executed for defying Rome, and as such was revered as a martyr and a saint. Valentine’s feast day is February 14, commonly believed to be the date of his death, and he is the patron saint of not only love, courting, and happy marriages, but also bees and beekeeping, the mentally ill, victims of the plague and epilepsy, and in some sects, the Greek island of Lesbos. He is also invoked as protection against fainting.
The holiday became especially popular around the fourteenth century, where the earliest records of poetry and love letters written to partners specifically for the day are recorded. This directly led to the custom of exchanging Valentine’s Day cards, as handwritten letters gave way to printed, store-bought cards in the twentieth century. Today, the only holiday for which more cards are sent is Christmas: an average of 145 million Valentine’s Day cards are exchanged every year!
Here are the origins of some other common Valentine’s Day symbols and traditions:
● The Roman god Cupid, commonly depicted as a small child with heart-shaped arrows, comes from the holiday’s Roman roots. According to myth, anyone pierced by Cupid’s arrow will fall instantly in love, leading to the popular joke that someone who has suddenly fallen in love has been shot by one.
● Chocolates have long been considered an aphrodisiac by many cultures, including the ancient Aztecs. This may have some basis in science: chocolate does contain phenylethylamine and tryptophan, two of the same chemicals that are released in the brain when you fall in love. As such, eating chocolate makes you just as happy as seeing your beloved. This is likely the reason why heart-shaped boxes of chocolate are the most popular Valentine’s gift.
● Hearts have long been considered a symbol of love, and no wonder: remember how your heart beats faster when you look at someone you love? The commonly seen ❤ symbol for a heart is theorized to be humans’ best guess at what a heart looked like, since an actual heart is shaped more amorphously, the shape of the aphrodisiac silphium plant, or a secret symbol used by Saint Valentine in arranging his forbidden marriages.
● Roses, specifically red roses, have symbolized romantic love since the days of ancient Greece and Rome, where they were considered symbols of the love deities Aphrodite and Eros and used as perfumes and marriage decorations, respectively. If you’d like to send a different, less passionate message, pink roses symbolize affection, yellow roses symbolize friendship, and white roses symbolize loyalty and innocence.
● You are also likely to see pairs of birds, usually doves or love birds, in Valentine’s Day decorations. In the Middle Ages, Valentine’s Day was partially helped to its reputation of being the lovers’ holiday by taking place at the same time that many birds’ mating seasons began. It’s also common to call openly or overly affectionate couples “lovebirds,” after the parrot species of the same name who mate for life and are noticeably affectionate with those mates.
● The colors pink and red are what you’ll see most often in Valentine’s Day gifts and decorations. Going hand in hand with flower symbolism, pink is a mixture of red, which symbolizes passion, with white, which symbolizes innocence. The colors together represent the spectrum between affection and deep passion.
Valentine’s Day is not a federal holiday, so expect schools, businesses, and government buildings to be operating on normal hours. Many couples enjoy going out for a meal on this day, so if you’re looking to get a February 14 reservation at your favorite restaurant, it’s best to do it sooner rather than later!
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