We often think of February as “the month of love” because Valentine’s Day always falls in the middle of the month on the 14th. People swap cards, candy, flowers, and gifts—and the stores are filled with Valentine displays. But where did these traditions come from?
Most sources suggest that Valentine’s Day originated as a feast day to honor Saint Valentine of Rome, a priest and early Christian martyr. Pope Gelasius first originated the Feast of Saint Valentine to remember the date of the priest’s death and to honor the good works and miracles performed in his life. On a romantic note, Valentine secretly married young couples when the emperor in his lifetime prohibited young marriage, believing unmarried soldiers fought better. Another legend says Saint Valentine wrote the first valentine greeting to the daughter of his jailor before his execution, signed “Your Valentine.”
Europeans, and especially the British, began to pick up on the concept of Valentine’s Day sending love notes and soon, also, candies to their sweethearts, probably as early as the 1400s-1500s. However, the day didn’t become popularly celebrated until the 17th century. By the 1900s, ready-made cards began to replace love notes and letters with new advances in printing and mailing. Cupid became associated with Valentine’s Day on early holiday cards. The Roman God Cupid, or Eros in Greek mythology—the God of Love—supposedly played mischief among humans by shooting his golden arrows to incite love in his victims. Many early Valentine’s cards showed the child caricature version of Cupid shooting out his love arrows, like on this old Victorian Valentine card.
In America, we started exchanging Valentine cards in the early 1700s and 1800s, and today approximately 145 million Valentine’s Day cards are sent or given out every year. The stores in America are already full of Valentine cards and gift displays. And in the schools, children swap Valentine’s Day cards and often create homemade cards in the classroom. In addition to all the general cards for the Valentine holiday, there are a huge assortment of individualized cards geared to “my wife,” “my husband,” “my sweetheart,” “my friend,” “my son,” “my daughter,” and more. Cards are available for nearly everyone on a person’s family and friends list. I even saw a card “from your dog,” and some cards even play love songs.
Specialty candies fill the store racks for Valentine’s gifts, too. There are boxes of chocolate candies packed in pretty heart-shaped boxes and many specialty candies are shaped like hearts. Conversation hearts or candy hearts with little messages on them, like “sweet talk,” “hug me” and “love u,” began back in the mid 1800s when a Boston pharmacist invented a machine to make it easier to mass-produce lozenges. The pharmacist then shifted his focus from medicinal lozenges to candy, founding what would become the New England Confectionery Company or Necco. From this beginning messages on hearts evolved and the new colorful “conversation hearts” became a great success from the 1900s to today, with Necco becoming the leading manufacturer of the hearts. Today some hearts even say “text me.”
Of all the flowers sent out at Valentine’s, roses are the most popular. One study in 2021 found that people spent $2 billion dollars on Valentine flowers—the most on roses. Sources suggest the tradition of giving roses at Valentine’s Day began in the 1700s with Lady Mary Montagu, a British Ambassador’s wife, who wrote home to friends from Turkey—excited over learning the “meanings of flowers.” Roses quickly became linked with romantic love, especially the red rose standing for “love and passion.”
With February and Valentine’s Day associated with love, the question comes up: “What is love?” Definitions usually say it’s ‘an intense feeling of deep, constant romantic affection’ and ‘an affection linked with strong physical attraction, passion, and devotion.’ Of course, there are aspects of love in friendships, family, and in other personal ties—but it is “romantic love” that is celebrated most at Valentine’s Day. Multiple studies have looked at what attracts couples to each other, causing them to have a romantic or love attachment. Much of the “biology of love” can be explained by chemistry. That romantic attraction or “zing” arises from hormones, stemming from the brain, not from the heart as we often believe. These hormones kick up lust, attraction, and a desire for attachment—that feeling of “falling in love”—which can hit you hard with an assortment of hormones rushing into play.
Several other factors contribute to the likelihood of a couple developing a bonding love relationship—like proximity, people living near each other or interacting often, along with physical attractiveness and the “matching phenomenon.” The latter is the tendency for people to be drawn to and to choose partners who are good matches in attractiveness and in other similar traits like intelligence, age, income, or education. Like the old saying “birds of a feather flock together,” and research has shown that couples are more likely to pair up with others who share similar looks, attitudes, interests, beliefs, and values. People also tend to be most attracted and comfortable with others similar to themselves, somewhat disputing the “opposites attract” theory. The entire psychological subject of how attractions form is fascinating to read about. Basically, though, we all seek to be liked and loved.
Once a relationship forms, it tends to have certain common elements: aspects of passionate and emotional love, intimacy and liking, the enjoyment for each other’s company, and affectionate companionate love, along with trust, understanding, and caring. An interesting phenomenon occurs as couples spend extensive time together. Atoms interchange between them and the atoms recognize, and are drawn to each other again, when the loved partner comes into proximity. Love is truly a science and a mystery and like the old song ‘a many splendored thing.’
Many sweet and beautiful theories abound about love—and hundreds of songs have been written about the joy and wonder of falling in love and about the hurt and heartache of love gone wrong. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote we tend to ‘love another, not only for who and what they are, but for who we are and become when we are with them.’
Happy Valentine’s Day this month…. I hope the sweetness of love has touched and enriched your life.
See you again in March … Lin
Note: All photos my own, from royalty free sites, or used only as a part of my author repurposed storyboards shown only for educational and illustrative purposes, acc to the Fair Use Copyright law, Section 107 of the Copyright Act.