The History of Valentine’s Day
February 14th, St. Valentine’s Day is celebrated as the day of love in the United States and many other countries around the world, often with flowers, cards, chocolate, romantic dinners and much more.
But who was Saint Valentine? The Catholic Church recognizes three saints with the name Valentine or in Latin, Valentinus. All of them were martyred – or in other words, they were killed for their faith.
Legend says that one of these Valentines was imprisoned and fell head over heals with his jailor’s daughter who would visit him. Just before his death he apparently wrote her a letter signed “from your Valentine.” And with that, the world’s first Valentine’s day greeting was created.
Another story of a different Valentine tells of a priest living in the 3rd Century AD in Rome during the reign of Emperor Claudius II. This emperor decreed that single men made superior soldiers and he forbade any single man to fall in love and marry. The consequence for disobeying orders was death. This Valentine continued to perform marriages secretly until he was discovered and put to death.
The third Valentine is known to have helped Christians escape their Roman captors.
Valentine’s Day Celebrations Around the World
Throughout the world, lovers of all kinds have unique ways of celebrating this holiday and others like it. Here are a few of the more unusual ways our global neighbors celebrate this day of romance.
In England and Scotland, it is customary to send anonymous Valentine cards. This practice dates back to Victorian times. Victorians believed it was bad luck to sign Valentine’s cards.
In another part of the United Kingdom, Wales, the day of love is celebrated on an entirely different date: January 25. It’s called St. Dwynwen’s Day, named after the Welsh patron saint of love. Men traditionally present women with handmade wooden “love” spoons. This custom traces its origins back to the practice of Welsh sailors carving intricate designs onto spoons for their wives and girlfriends while at sea to while away the long hours.
On the other side of the world in South Korea it is the women who give gifts to men on Valentine’s day. This country also has a special day on April 14 for single people called “Black Day.” The name comes from the custom of single friends gathering together to eat noodles in a black sauce and celebrating being single.
Just across the water in Japan, women also make the first move on Valentine’s Day. They often give men “honmei-choco” — true feeling chocolate. Men return the gesture on March 14 with gifts of white chocolate on “White Day.”
In many Latin American countries Valentine’s Day is known as “El Dia de los Enamorados,” the Day of Lovers or Those in Love or “El Dia del Amor y la Amistad,” the day of Love and Friendship. Aside from the usual presents of chocolates and flowers for your loved one, some people also perform simple little gestures of appreciation for their close friends or play a game called “Amigo Secreto” — Secret Friend, which is similar to the North American Secret Santa, played at Christmas.
Brazil has its own equivalent of Valentine’s Day called “Dia dos Namorados,” Lovers’ Day on June 12. This is also the day of St. Anthony, the patron saint of marriage. One of the reasons Brazil does not celebrate on February 14 is because this is much too close to the huge country-wide celebration of Carnival.
As we head to the cooler climes of Northern Europe now, we find Sweden calling February 14 “Alla Hjärtans Dag,” All Hearts Day. On this day, it’s customary to eat Kärleksmums, which is tricky to translate. The nearest English equivalent is love treats — delicious little chocolate brownies cut into heart shapes.
In nearby Finland and Estonia, February 14 is referred to as “Ystävänpäivä/ Sõbrapäev” or Friends’ Day. This is a traditional day to get engaged or ride on special love buses in the hope of meeting your special one.
In India Hindus celebrate love by honoring कामदेव (Kamadeva), the god of human love and desire during the spring festival of “Holi.” People wear plant-based paint on their faces, throw paint at unsuspecting passers-by, sing, dance and give friends special candies. This is also traditionally a time for forgiveness and harmony as well as love and friendship.
In Israel, the Jewish equivalent of Valentine’s Day is called ט״ו באב “Tu B’Av” and is celebrated in August. This is a popular day for proposals of marriage and to give gifts of flowers and cards.
In other parts of the Middle East, most notably in the strict Muslim countries of Saudi Arabia and Iran, the celebration of Valentine’s Day has been officially discouraged. These bans have actually created a black market for roses and wrapping paper with people observing the day behind closed doors.
In more liberal Lebanon, Saint Valentine is revered as the country’s patron saint. Couples use this day to exchange sweet words and gifts as proof of love. These include cupcakes, boxes of chocolates and red roses, the symbol of passion and sacrifice.
The World’s Most Romantic Languages
It should come as no surprise that the top contenders fighting it out neck and neck are all Romance languages-French, Italian and Spanish, all descended from Latin. These results are based on the outcome of several surveys. The answers are highly subjective and can depend on individual taste and also on the listener’s native language.
The word romance itself comes from the old French word, “Romanz.” In Medieval Times, a “Romanz” was a story that was told in the vernacular or local language rather than in the more highfalutin and official Latin language. These romantic stories were often about fair maidens being rescued by brave male heroes. The word Romanz morphed into the English word romance, which can refer to a real or fictional love story or as an adjective for the group of vernacular languages that developed from Latin into the major modern French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian languages as well as into less widely-spoken languages like Catalan and Romansh.
Other favorite romantic languages amongst those surveyed are Russian, Arabic and wait for it…. English!