All across the world on 14th February, we celebrate Valentine’s Day – a day where we celebrate the loved ones in our lives – but where did the tradition come from and how did it become such a staple part of our calendar?

Like many of the festivals celebrated in Britain, St Valentine’s Day appears to have some basis in paganism and it is believed that the celebration of love and relationships that we see today was inspired by Lupercalia, a fertility festival celebrated by the pagans. Apparently, the festival took place every year from 13th – 15th February and involved running naked through the streets. Thankfully, we’ve left that bit of the celebration behind!                  

As with many of the festivals we celebrate today, the pagan celebration soon became amalgamated into the church. There are two different stories as to the origins of the day according to the early Christians, both stories involved a martyr called Valentine, who died on 14th February. The celebration was officially named as St Valentine’s Day and declared a Christian feast day in the year 496AD by Pope Gelasius. This version of Valentine’s Day was much more watered down than the pagan festival that came before – no more running naked through the streets or focusing on fertility, rather it was a day to remember the martyr St Valentine. That is of course until popular culture changed it yet again. The association with romance and love is the fault of Geoffrey Chaucer.

Chaucer wrote a poem in the 1300s to celebrate the engagement of Richard II to Anne of Bohemia and it was his mention of St Valentine’s Day and the association with romantic love within the poem that formed the basis of the day we know now. From then on, the sending of Valentine’s notes was recorded, with the earliest surviving one dating back to the 1400s. By the 1600s, Valentine’s Day was an established day in the English celebration calendar. It was mentioned by Shakespeare and the passing of love notes became standard practice by the end of the 1700s. In the 1790s, a book, the Young Man’s Valentine Writer, was published to help those young men who couldn’t compose their own missives of love – think of it as being the first ever Hallmark card!

Speaking of cards, sending anonymous Valentine’s cards in the post started becoming common place after the introduction of the Penny Post in 1840. To capitalise on this, printers began to mass produce Valentine’s cards, the practice then spread over seas and now it is believed that around 1 million Valentine’s cards are sent worldwide every year.

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