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Valentine’s Day, then and now

by | Feb 1, 2018 | Culture | 0 comments

Valentine’s Day. Whether you love it or hate it, it is one of the busiest holidays of the year. People in relationships spend exorbitant amounts of money on treats and trinkets for their loved ones, and the best restaurants in the city often have all their tables for the evening booked months in advance. Hearts and Cupid’s bow decorations are everywhere, and Valentine’s cards are exchanged with loved ones and friends alike. Those of us in the single world spend the holiday waiting for Feb. 15, the true love-based holiday, when all of the fine chocolates go on sale.

The day is meant as a time to celebrate romantic love, but how did it all begin? Why Feb. 14? And who began the festivities?

A great many theories exist as to the origins of Valentine’s Day, each of which is widely disputed. The most popular and widespread story is that of Saint Valentine. Encyclopaedia Britannica and the History Channel both offer comprehensive histories of Saint Valentine and Valentine’s Day. He is considered the patron saint of lovers and helper to those unhappy in love. While little is known about Valentine, it is believed that he was a Christian martyr, physician, and priest whose legend dates back to the third century, during the reign of Roman Emperor Claudius II Gothicus.

The twist: the Catholic Church actually recognizes three saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom may have inspired the legend and the holiday. All three were priests.

The first Valentine’s legend has it that when the emperor outlawed marriage for young men — believing that single men made better soldiers than did married men with families — the valiant priest Valentine defied orders and continued to marry young lovers in secret. When the benevolent crimes were discovered, Claudius II ordered Valentine be put to death.

The second Saint Valentine is believed to have spent his life helping Christians escape Roman prisons. The prisons were known to be particularly violent and gruesome, with prisoners often being beaten and tortured — which, from my understanding, was pretty standard for jails in the Dark Ages but was nonetheless terrible. When the second saint’s heroic actions were discovered, he was also put to death.

Unlike the other legends, the third Saint Valentine was believed to be both a priest and a physician of sorts. Due to his faith, Valentine was jailed, persecuted, and executed on the orders of Claudius II Gothicus. While imprisoned, Valentine used his medical prowess to heal his jailer’s blind daughter, restoring her sight. He then befriended and fell in love with that same daughter. Before his execution, he wrote her a letter signed, “From your Valentine” — the very first valentine ever sent.

“The Catholic Church actually recognizes three saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom may have inspired the legend and the holiday. All three were priests.”

The moral of the story: The dark ages were savage, and Emperor Claudius II really had it out for Christian priests with the
name Valentine.

According to all of these legends, Valentine’s Day is celebrated in the middle of February on the anniversary of Valentine’s death or burial. It is unlikely that all three priests named Valentine were executed on the same day, but then again, record keeping seems to have been a bit lax during the third century.

A more likely theory as to the reason we celebrate St. Valentine’s Day on Feb. 14 is that the Christian Church placed the feast of Saint Valentine in the middle of February in order to overshadow the pagan celebration Lupercalia. Lupercalia was a fertility festival that took place annually on Feb. 15 and celebrated the Roman god of agriculture, Faunus, and the Roman founders Romulus and Remus. The aim of the festival was to appease these gods, increase the fertility of Roman women in the coming year, and secure partnerships between young Roman women and men, who would be likely to get married later.

Regardless of which origin story holds the most truth, Feb. 14 was not declared St. Valentine’s Day until the end of the fifth century. While verbal Valentine’s greetings were popular as early as the middle ages, written valentines didn’t rise to popularity until the 1400s.

By the 1800s, friends and lovers of all social classes commonly exchanged sentimental tokens and handwritten notes on Valentine’s Day. By the 19th century, improvements in printing technology allowed printed cards to widely replace written letters. These printed cards were a convenient way for people to express their emotions and affections, even though directly expressing one’s feelings was discouraged.

Today, Valentine’s Day is radically different. The holiday has expanded, and according to the Greeting Card Association, one billion Valentine’s Day cards are sent every year. Valentine’s Day sales also peaked in 2016, reaching an unprecedented high of $19.7 billion. An article on states that Valentine’s Day has become the fourth most lucrative event in the retail calendar, coming behind only Christmas, back-to-school, and Mother’s Day. And with that, I think it is safe to say that the holiday of love has been effectively commercialized.

The biggest change is that Valentine’s Day has become a holiday for both couples and singles. Many people celebrate the day by buying gifts for themselves, friends, and pets instead of their significant others. In 2016, according to, Americans spent a total of $681 million on Valentine’s Day gifts for their pets, with one in five Americans buying presents for their dogs.

For those who do choose to spend money on their significant others, it should come as no surprise that the five most common gifts are chocolates, diamond earrings, roses, dinner for two, and champagne. According to, $6.38 billion in wine is sold in Canada on the holiday as well — because champagne is expensive and boxed wine is more practical for drowning loneliness on a budget.

According to a study done by Mastercard, Canadians have also started shifting their spending from physical gifts to experiences. In particular, the study noted that 35 per cent of the money spent on Valentine’s Day went to travel, 29 per cent to restaurants, and another 20 per cent to accommodations. Flights to exotic beaches have become the new box of chocolates.

A 2016 article in Fortune Magazine also notes a sharp increase in the use of dating apps on and around Valentine’s Day. Last Valentine’s Day, the Hinge dating app saw a 230 per cent increase in usage compared to a typical day. Tinder also saw a 7.6 per cent increase in usage. Because nothing cures the loneliness of a single person on Valentine’s Day like wine, unsolicited pictures, and pick-up lines. Who said chivalry is dead?

Do with that information what you will. Personally, I plan to spend my Valentine’s day handing out children’s Disney valentines, tirelessly supporting our Canadian wine industry, and joining the 20 per cent of Americans who buy Valentine’s gifts for their pets.

Graphics by Kia Valdez Bettcher.

Marina Shenfield

The Griff


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