Valentine’s Day is just two weekends away, but you probably have enough reminders from all the flowers, hearts and gift guides you’ve been bombarded with on all fronts. This begs the question: how did these items and symbols come to be associated with Valentine’s Day? Or perhaps the question to begin with is how did Valentine’s Day come to be in the first place?
For starters, Valentine’s Day was traditionally celebrated as the Feast of Saint Valentine by Catholics before it was removed from the Calendar of Saints in 1969 due to its murky history, given several contradicting martyrdom accounts linked to its origin.
One legend follows the story of a priest named Valentine who served in third century Rome. This was during the time of Emperor Claudius II, who decreed that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and children, hence outlawing marriage for young men. Valentine defied the order and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret, before he was discovered and put to death.
Another story claims that Valentine was killed for attempting to help Christians escape harsh Roman prisons, where they were often persecuted and tortured. Still other stories suggest that an imprisoned Valentine fell in love with his jailor’s daughter who visited him during his confinement, and gave her the first valentine card signed “your Valentine”. In these accounts, Valentine was martyred on February 14 in AD496.
Then there’s the controversial Roman festival of Lupercalia in the Middle Ages, which involved fertility rites and the pairing off of women with men by lottery. Deeming the festival “un-Christian, Pope Gelasius I declared February 14 St. Valentine’s Day in honour of the martyr – though it’s unclear which version of him.
But the Valentine’s Day we know today is more closely attributed to one poet Geoffrey Chaucer, whose 14th-century works “The Parliament of Foules” and “The Complaint of Mars” linked love with St. Valentine. From then on, the day came to be a celebration of romance that’s expressed with flowers, greeting cards and so on – which brings us back to the first question. Read on to discover the most common symbols of Valentine’s Day and the story behind them.
Chocolates weren’t part of the original religious feast nor Chaucer’s poems, but only came into the picture from the 19th century. At the time, Richard Cadbury – chocolatier and heir to the British cocoa and chocolate company – had developed a revolutionary technique that produced a surplus of cocoa butter. To take advantage of this, he pioneered “eating chocolate” and marketed it via specially designed Cupid and heart-shaped (more on this later) boxes near Valentine’s Day. He also suggested using the boxes to store keepsakes such as cards and love letters, driving the capitalist idea home.
Contrary to popular belief, however, chocolates are not scientifically proven to be an aphrodisiac and any sexual arousal from its consumption is said to be psychological, not physiological. They are proven to be a mood booster though, so it still doesn’t hurt to gift them to your loved ones!
Though more prevalent in Western cultures than other parts of the world where Valentine’s Day is also celebrated, Cupid is also known as the poster boy for the romantic occasion. Unlike the chubby, winged infant with a bow and arrow you may be familiar with, the original Cupid dates back to 700 BC in the form of the handsome Greek god Eros, whose name means desire. Legend has it that he was the son of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and he would play with the hearts of mortals and gods to cause mayhem.
When the Roman era began, Eros was renamed Cupid and his dark narrative retold as the cute cherubic boy who follows his mother’s wishes to make people fall in love. The Romans also changed Aphrodite’s name to Venus. This version of Cupid persisted and was later adapted into Valentine cards in the 19th century as its mascot.
Lovebirds are among the earliest symbols of Valentine’s Day, as the same 14th-century English poet (Geoffrey Chaucer) linked to its origin wrote: “For this was on Seynt Valentyne’s day, whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate” (“For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate”). The poem implied that love birds begin the mating season on February 14, thus associating them with the celebration of love.
It’s second nature to associate the heart symbol with love; but if you really think about it, the shape looks nothing like the actual organ we know from biology textbooks. Like the celebration, the modern-day “scalloped” heart shape can be traced back to the medieval times, when artists and scientists had attempted to draw representations of ancient medical texts. Given that the heart is critical in preserving life in the same way love is, the shape was eventually co-opted as a symbol of romance and courtly love.
The colour red is commonly associated with love and passion, while the rose has been a subject of art and poetry to represent love for centuries, if not millenniums. Put two and two together and it’s no wonder why red roses are a universal symbol of love and romance – thus making the perfect gift for Valentine’s Day. Every culture from Greek and Roman mythology to Eastern and Arabic legends has their own backstory of the red rose, which deserves an article of its own. With that said, their wild popularity has made a bouquet of red roses incredibly difficult – and costly – to procure for Valentine’s Day, making flowers in general the default messenger of affection.
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